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Mark Arbour

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  1. Chapter 46

    I do live in St. Louis and the Hill is my favorite place for Italian food
  2. The latest installment in the CAP Series, Black Widow, has officially been launched. You'll find the prologue and the first chapter here. By the way, to get updates on this story, follow the link above, and simply click on "follow this story" in the upper right part of the blurb. If you follow all of my stories, you can actually get updates on everything, by going here and clicking on "follow this author." An FYI...I had planned to write a number of chapters of this story and publish them a bit later than this, to maintain a more regular posting pace, but the US Supreme Court decision spurred me to go ahead and launch the story now.
  3. The prologue and first chapter of Northern Exposure, the newest story in the Bridgemont series, has been posted. Enjoy!
  4. Chapter 10

    August 1800 HMS Valiant The Thames Granger boarded his ship, greeted by the standard honors he had become used to. “Welcome back, my lord,” Weston said cheerfully. Granger found his sadness at leaving home and his frustration with the mob vanish as he returned to this familiar milieu, and he was hit with Weston’s ever-present cheerfulness. “Thank you, Mr. Weston,” Granger responded. He looked beyond Weston and noticed another officer standing there, looking quite nervous. As he was wearing a lieutenant’s uniform, Granger gathered that this was his new second lieutenant, Edward Grenfell. It was impossible not to appreciate how handsome he was. He was about the same height as Granger, and as slim as Daventry, with a uniform cut in a very stylish way. His hair was a darker brown, almost as dark as Calvert’s, but without the reddish tints, and he had a long face with very engaging blue eyes. Without withering under Granger’s eye, the man stepped forward. “My lord, I’m Edward Grenfell. I’ve been appointed to Valiant.” “I was aware of your appointment, Mr. Grenfell, but I had expected you to arrive sooner,” Granger said severely. “I must beg your pardon for that, my lord. I arrived yesterday. I was up north, in Northumberland, and when my new orders caught up to me I made as much haste as possible,” the man said. He seemed truly contrite, so Granger relented. “As we are to sail shortly, your tales of your travels to Northumberland will have to wait for another time,” Granger said jovially, getting a smile from Grenfell. “I will be happy to entertain Your Lordship with tales of my journeys,” Grenfell said. Another man moved forward to introduce himself, but this man wasn’t nearly as attractive as Grenfell, and in fact he wasn’t attractive at all. He looked to be at least 50 years old, and was carrying about twice as much weight on his body as it had been designed to accommodate. His skin was leathery, and his face grizzled, giving him the look of an experienced mariner. “My lord, I’m Erasmus Schein,” he said, in an accent that seemed Germanic. “Welcome aboard Mr. Schein,” Granger said. “I am told that you know the Baltic like the back of your hand.” “I am not sure who told you that, my lord, but in that case, I don’t know the back of my hand all that well,” he said modestly, a characteristic Granger appreciated. “Well, in any event, you know it better than I do,” Granger said. “Welcome aboard.” “Thank you, my lord,” Schein said. “My lord, I’ve familiarized Mr. Grenfell and Mr. Schein with the ship, and they’ve both settled into the Wardroom,” Weston said. “I am glad to hear your good manners have not deserted you, Mr. Weston,” Granger said pleasantly. “As the tide will change in an hour, we will be sailing when that happens, provided our passengers manage to make it on board by then.” “You have but to give the order, my lord,” Weston said, which was as it should be. “Then I will leave you to make final preparations, while I go and see how well Winkler has organized my cabin,” Granger said. He walked directly aft, through the door that sealed off his world from the quarterdeck, and found his quarters set up much as they’d been when he’d originally sailed with Lord and Lady Elgin. On either side of the deck, two compartments had been created, while at the rear, the entire cabin was open, containing his huge dining table and hutch. “We’ve got things set up, my lord,” Winkler said, looking mildly exasperated. “I’ve set your cabin up here on the same side as Lord Frederick Cavendish, while I’ve put Lords Daventry and Whitworth on the opposite side.” “That’s excellent, Winkler,” Granger said. He walked into his sleeping cabin and noticed that there was a door there, the same one that was normally there when this other compartment served as his office. That made him smile, and fueled his libido, as he thought of Cavendish on just the other side of that door. He knocked, and when he heard Cavendish say “enter”, he did. “From the commotion, I figured you’d come aboard,” Cavendish said in a decidedly unfriendly way. “I have,” Granger said, somewhat surprised by his attitude. “Have you gotten orders to release me yet?” Cavendish asked. “I have not, and as we are to sail shortly, it seems you are to be stuck with us,” Granger said. “Quite frankly, I would have thought you would be happy to be sailing with us.” “This is no longer my life,” Cavendish said, referring to the world of the Navy. “You were not happy with your life ashore, yet when you were aboard one of His Majesty’s ships, I remember that your moods were much better. Perhaps you are exactly where you belong, you are just too short-sighted to see it,” Granger said, his tone progressing from factual to almost nasty. “I will leave you to mull it over.” He left Cavendish’s cabin, pausing briefly in his own to get his visage back to its previously cheerful demeanor. He really thought Cavendish would be happier about leaving London for a bit, and he really thought Cavendish would be happy to spend time with him at sea. As Granger saw it, he had saved Cavendish’s life and whisked him off to safety, risking some relatively nasty political repercussions for his efforts, and he’d done this even though Cavendish had avoided him as if he had the plague. He shook off his annoyance and puzzlement over Cavendish and went back on deck to see to their departure. No sooner had he arrived on the quarterdeck than Lord Whitworth pulled himself through the entry port. “Welcome aboard,” Granger said cheerfully, even as he went forward to greet him. “Thank you, Granger,” Whitworth said. “This is a damned convenient set up,” he said, referring to the gangway. “Indeed it is, and we have His Majesty to thank for it,” Granger said, remembering the party they’d thrown to host their sovereign. “Then once again, I am grateful for the favors he has done for me,” Whitworth said. He looked at the trunks that were being hauled aboard. “I fear I have brought a good deal of baggage with me Granger.” “We will find a place for it,” Granger said with a smile. “This ship’s design and modifications make storing things much easier.” “Indeed?” Whitworth asked curiously. “We have fitted iron water tanks into the ship, tanks that are designed to match her curved hull. Not only do they allow us to store our water in a much more efficient and compact way, they create a flat floor on which to stack things,” Granger said. “That has allowed us to dispense with iron shingles for ballast and stowage, and those two things have given Valiant much more space for stores.” “It appears I have indeed picked the right ship to take me to Copenhagen,” he said with a smile. “I hope that is true,” Granger said pleasantly. He looked at his watch and noticed that it was almost time for their departure, then looked up to see Daventry climbing through the entry port, followed by his two aides. “Welcome aboard,” Granger said. “I am glad to be here,” Daventry said then paused to greet Whitworth. “It is good to see you gentlemen again,” Granger said to Boles and McGillivray, Daventry’s assistants. “As it is to see you, my lord,” Boles replied for both of them. “While they are stowing your baggage, allow me to show you to your quarters,” Granger said to Daventry and Whitworth. He led them into Valiant’s great cabin, which was all-too-familiar to Daventry, and explained their sleeping and dining arrangements. “It was my intention for us to dine together this afternoon, and then we can sup with my officers and explain our mission.” “That would seem to be a reasonable plan,” Whitworth agreed. “Then while you gentlemen settle in, I will see to getting us underway,” Granger noted. “I will retire to my spacious cabin and luxuriate in the room you have provided me,” Daventry said with a grin. Granger strolled out onto the deck to find that Weston had things well in hand, and that he’d brought all the gear aboard. Stowing it would take a bit longer. Granger was impressed yet again by Weston, and what a competent officer he was. “We will sail immediately,” Granger announced. “I will give you the honor of conning us out of port,” he said to Weston. “Thank you, my lord,” Weston said, and was slightly stunned. Granger was placing quite a bit of confidence in his first lieutenant, and it was nice that Weston understood that. “Do try to keep us from running aground,” Granger teased. “Major Treadway, some music for our lads to work to!” “Aye aye, my lord,” Treadway said. He’d anticipated Granger’s order, and had his band assembled on the poop deck, so he had but to give the order for them to begin serenading Valiant’s crew and those ashore who paused to listen. Granger strode over to the side of the ship and gazed off at the city and the Tower of London, even as Valiant cast off her lines and was warped out into the channel. He acted disinterested as Weston conned the large ship slowly down the Thames, even though he was mentally noting every maneuver. Whitworth and Daventry kept him company, chatting about nothing of substance, as Valiant made her way down the Thames. Cavendish still hadn’t made an appearance; he’d remained sequestered in his cabin all by himself. It wasn’t until they reached the Nore that Granger was able to tear himself away to go dine with his esteemed guests. “That was well done, Mr. Weston,” Granger said, his voice emphasizing the praise in his words. “Thank you, my lord,” Weston said, grinning. “After we are off Margate, set a course east north-east,” Granger ordered. “Aye aye, my lord,” Weston responded. “Now that we are on our way, gentlemen, perhaps you would care to join me for dinner,” Granger said to Whitworth and Daventry. “With pleasure,” Whitworth answered for all of them. They went into the great cabin and found the dining room table set, and found Cavendish already waiting for them. “Cavendish!” Daventry said enthusiastically. “The last I heard, you were tempting bullets in duels.” “I seem to be a hard man to kill,” Cavendish said, trying to be upbeat. “A foolish man tempts fate too often,” Whitworth said in a scolding way. “As I recall, your duel precluded a very important meeting, one that we must now revisit.” “I did not ask for the intervention that interrupted your meeting, so I surely cannot be held accountable for that,” Cavendish said boldly, unwilling to be browbeaten by this distinguished diplomat. “Sometimes there is a silver lining to an evil event, and I think that in this case, we are fortunate that this whole affair has ended up with Cavendish on board, joining us for this mission,” Granger said, sticking up for Cavendish, even though he was annoyed with him. “That is your silver lining?” Whitworth challenged. “It is,” Granger said firmly. “I remember a few years back, after we had all but destroyed the Leopard off Imperia, I was so full of our success I hadn’t seen the obvious, that the French were trying to keep us engaged so they could bring superior forces to bear. Cavendish was the only one to keep a clear head, and but for him, I would probably still be languishing in a French jail somewhere.” “And His Most Catholic Majesty would be significantly richer,” Daventry joked, thinking that if Granger had been locked in a French jail he wouldn’t have captured the Galleon, or intercepted the Spanish Treasure Fleet. “Possibly,” Granger said, chuckling with him. “So I am happy to have such a cool and clear head to assist us, lest we let our own self-importance cloud our judgment.” His obvious jab at Whitworth infuriated the man, but Granger was following Cavendish’s lead, and standing up to him, suspecting that if he did not do so now, he would have a much more difficult time of things later on in their mission. “Thank you for your kind words,” Cavendish said to Granger in a friendly way, the first such interaction they’d had in months. “I am even more thankful that you have retained the services of Lefavre.” “Hear hear,” Daventry said. “Your chef is truly exceptional.” “I must agree,” Whitworth said, and in the way that often happened, Lefavre’s excellent cooking helped these four men work themselves into good cheer. After dinner Granger went back on deck to see to their progress, and stayed there until it was time for supper. It was strange to Granger that Cavendish was still sequestered below in his cabin, especially since the weather was so pleasant. He began to pace, even as he thought about the situation with Cavendish. He tried to figure the man out, and tried to decipher why he was so unhappy to be here. He had seemed miserable in England, and his letters had been all but despondent, yet now that he was gone, he was evidently more unhappy. He would trade potential death in a duel to be there? What would make him so determined to remain at home? Granger thought about Caroline’s revelation to him, about how politics was like a drug for her, but he didn’t think Cavendish was as engaged in that world as she was. It was also possible that he was worried about the King and his moods, and wanted to stay and support him. That motive had some merit, but Cavendish would be significantly wounded in the eyes of the King over this duel, so that alone would indicate that he wasn’t acting only to help his sovereign. “My lord, supper is ready,” Winkler said, interrupting Granger in the midst of his walk. Granger blinked once in surprise at being jarred out of his thoughts, then put his façade back on. “Quite so,” he said crisply. He returned to his cabin to await the arrival of his officers. They filed in at the prescribed time, and sat at the table, where Granger had put place cards to avoid the standard process where everyone sat in order of seniority and rank. He’d put his Sicilian midshipman, Prince Genarro, next to Whitworth, which had the effect of taming the arrogance of that sometimes haughty diplomat. “I fear that if we eat this well on the entire voyage, I will grow too fat for my breeches,” Whitworth said. “I will convey your compliments to my chef,” Granger said graciously. “Yet having a good chef is only part of the equation, Granger,” Daventry said with a smile. “The other part of that is having a charming host. In that regard, you would make the King’s fare seem pleasant.” “Hear hear!” said several of the men. “I fear you give me too much credit,” Granger said uncomfortably, “and I would worry that by taking away from his results, you would irritate my chef.” That got predictable laughs from most of them, since they were very aware of Lefavre’s temperament. “I usually host these events after sailing to inform you of our orders, and this occasion is no exception.” “I have deduced, based on our course, my lord, that we are not destined for India,” Weston said. His cheerful manner was such a tonic. “We are not,” Granger said, “and I applaud your ability to read maps.” That got a predictable laugh. “Thank you, my lord,” Weston said. “We are destined for the Baltic,” Granger said. “We are first tasked to deposit Lord Whitworth at Copenhagen.” “You make me sound like so much unwanted cargo,” Whitworth grumbled, pretending to be annoyed. “Your lordship is certainly not unwanted, but you have a bit of cargo with you,” Granger said, joking about Whitworth’s baggage. “As I am not sure how long I will be there, it seemed wise to arrive well equipped,” Whitworth said. “A prudent precaution and one we would expect from your lordship,” Granger said to Whitworth, making the man smile slightly. “After that, we are to convey Lord Daventry to St. Petersburg.” “Russia, sir?” Kingsdale asked, somewhat surprised. “Unless the Swedes or Germans have captured it, St. Petersburg is still part of Russia,” Granger said with a smile. “So we are to be nothing more than a glorified transport, my lord?” Weston asked. “And now I am feeling like cargo,” Daventry joked. Granger waited until the laughter died down. “Perhaps that is a more appropriate term to describe you than Lord Whitworth,” Granger joked, getting more laughter. “In fact, our mission may be quite hazardous.” “Sir?” Genarro asked, and then looked nervous for saying anything at this gathering. Granger gave him a supportive smile to let him know he was doing fine. “The Swedes, Danes, Russians, and many of the Northern German states have reconstituted their League of Armed Neutrality,” Granger informed them. “That means that we must consider any ship we encounter as probably hostile.” “How will we know which ships are hostile and which are not, my lord?” Weston asked. “You will have to approach them under a flag of truce,” Whitworth said, answering the question for Granger. “If they agree to parley, they will parley. If they do not, you will have to fight them.” “The fleets of those countries are quite significant, are they not, my lord?” Grenfell asked. “Indeed they are, so we must hope we can accomplish our goals without getting blown out of the water,” Granger joked. “When you are in Russia, especially if you have been admitted to a port, you will be safe,” Whitworth said. “At sea, it will be largely up to the admiral in charge as to how he handles you. Individual captains will be reluctant to risk a battle that could result in their being sanctioned.” “I can see why your lordship said this may be hazardous, my lord,” Treadway said. “Mr. Schein is here to help guide us through the navigational perils we face, and I suspect those will be more dangerous than enemy ships,” Granger said. “Sadly, my lord, you are correct,” Schein said. “The Baltic is a sea full of shoals, shallows, and sandbars, and it is made even more challenging by the fact that the sandbars shift around a bit.” “So a sandbar that was in one position last year, may now have moved into a different position this year?” Granger asked, unable to hide how much that worried him. “I think the shifts are not that dramatic, but over a period of years they most definitely change, my lord,” Schein said. “That makes charts that are more than a few years old somewhat unreliable.” “Then I am even more glad you are with us,” Granger said, then turned to Grenfell. “I am wondering, since all of your relatives and connections were mercilessly assaulting the Admiralty begging them to appoint you to a ship, why you were gallivanting about in Northumberland?” “Despite their efforts, I had feared my reputation with the Admiralty was so low that there was no hope for an immediate appointment, my lord,” Grenfells said. “You are woefully uninformed as to the Admiralty’s true opinion of you, Lieutenant,” Cavendish said, the first contribution he’d made to the conversation. “Indeed, my lord?” Grenfell asked. “I feared after my problems aboard Sceptre, my stock with Their Lordships had sunk to new lows.” “The Admiralty thinks that you are a talented and innovative officer,” Granger said. “You were posted to this ship because I am more tolerant of such progressive ideas.” That got a laugh from the table, since it was only too true. “His Lordship’s observation is quite accurate,” Cavendish said. Granger found that annoying, as if he required support in his arguments. As the captain of Valiant, he was the de facto autocratic ruler of this ship and her men. His word should be the definitive statement on a topic. “I would further note that your report on carronades, and how their aim is off, was taken quite seriously by Their Lordships.” “What did you discover about carronades?” Granger asked. “My lord, I did some testing, and found that the way carronades are aimed, they invariably fire low,” Grenfell said. “Indeed?” Granger asked curiously. “Now that you mention it, I remember when we last fired the smasher, our shot seemed to veer down,” Treadway mused. “So what is the solution to this problem?” Granger asked. “I developed a gun sight for the carronades aboard Sceptre, my lord,” Grenfell said. “The captain would not allow me to deploy them, but he did allow a limited test.” “Did they work?” Granger asked curiously. “They did. Since I’ve been ashore, I’ve done some more testing, my lord,” Grenfell said. “In fact, that’s why I was in Northumberland. There was a facility I could use. The sights worked well, but I was able to modify them to make them more accurate.” “Could you fit sights to our carronades?” “I could, my lord, if you would allow me to work with the gunner,” Grenfell said, smiling happily. “Then I would like you to do that, and then we can test them ourselves,” Granger said. “Experimenting with new-fangled technology is surely best left to those ashore or safely in port?” Whitworth asked. “On the contrary, at sea, when we are in action, that is when we need to have an edge the most,” Granger said. “And those are the times when we are best able to evaluate the performance of such a device.” “What happens if such an idea is dangerous and causes the loss of one of His Majesty’s ships and crews?” Whitworth challenged. “That is why the Admiralty gives some captains and admirals more discretion on this issue than others,” Cavendish said. “And that is one of the reasons why Lieutenant Grenfell serves on this ship and not a ship captained by an unimaginative man who will not open his mind to new ideas.” “Thank you, my lord,” Grenfell said, mostly to keep Whitworth from really lashing out at Cavendish. “As it is, we have been fortunate in that our experiments have been universally positive,” Granger said soothingly. “In this situation, we really do not have much to lose. If the sights do not work as planned, we can easily disregard them or remove them.” “How long will it take us to get to Copenhagen?” Whitworth asked, as if he were so annoyed he could not wait to land. “That will largely depend on the wind,” Granger said. Conversation became general and pleasant after that, but Granger was quite happy to see them go back to their cabins or their duties. He avoided further conversation with Whitworth by going on deck to inspect Valiant’s progress. He had been on deck for less than a minute when his mood began to change. It was a beautiful night, with balmy weather the likes of which one would expect to find in the Caribbean. The sky was clear, and the moon and stars were so bright it was almost like Granger could reach up and touch them. The calm seas lapped against Valiant’s sides as she made steady progress through the water, progress that was slow because the winds were so light. Yet it was those same light winds that made it so pleasant. “I had forgotten how pleasant a night at sea could be,” Cavendish said, as he came up and stood next to Granger. “Such beauty is deceptive, as a storm could be brewing just over the horizon,” Granger said with a smile. “I remember that weather as well,” Cavendish said with a grimace. “I sometimes long for this, for a ship of my own, to be able to be free of London and its entanglements.” “I find myself the most conflicted when I am getting ready for sea and when I am returning home,” Granger said. “Those are the times when the choices I make by leading this life come fully into play.” “I found coming home from a voyage to be the most disconcerting,” Cavendish admitted. “Why?” “It is as if you went to see a play with four acts, and you saw the first act, but missed the second act, and then you return while the third act is in progress,” he said. “And then, when the fourth act starts, you are expected to be a full participant, when you are still trying to decipher what you missed.” “I feel the same way, but I have never heard it put into such a comprehensible way,” Granger said. They walked over to the rail and gazed off toward the coast. “If I am not mistaken, that is Suffolk.” “It is ironic that your father owns so much land in Derbyshire, yet his dukedom is in Suffolk, where to my knowledge, he has limited holdings,” Cavendish joked. “And your father draws his title from a rock in the South Seas, and I would daresay he spends little time there,” Granger joked, getting a chuckle from Cavendish, one that ended abruptly. “He refuses to so much as talk to me,” Cavendish said sadly. “He is incensed that I have defied him by refusing to marry Miss Barnett.” “I was quite stunned by that news, that His Grace would wish to tie his family to a member of the Guild,” Granger said, letting his irritation show through. “It would appear that he places little value on my skills, and my person,” Cavendish said bitterly. “He is usually a very shrewd man, so it is strange to see him make such a huge error in judgment,” Granger said, smiling at Cavendish slightly to try to nudge him out of his bad mood. “If only he would see that he has made such an error,” Cavendish said morosely. “If His Majesty were his normal self, he could probably have helped smooth things over.” “He is not well?” Granger asked nervously. “The government and the gentlemen who surround the King would have everyone believe he is just fine, but he is showing signs of his sickness,” Cavendish said. “When I approached him on this topic, he suggested I confer with Lord Hertford.” “Lord Hertford?” Granger asked, surprised. The current Marquess of Hertford was a politician and a nice enough man, but Granger did not see why Cavendish should seek him out for advice. “He was referring to Lord Hertford’s father, who died in 1794, and was at one time the Lord Chamberlain,” Cavendish said. “That was under Lord North’s government, wasn’t it?” Granger asked. “It was.” “When I last saw him, he became agitated and asked me to send for Lord North,” Granger said. “It would seem that his mind has warped back some twenty years or so.” “Yet we are not back in the 1780s, so that makes things just a bit difficult,” Cavendish said cynically. “His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was less helpful.” “He did not step in and try to improve things with you and your father?” Granger asked, truly surprised. The Prince was known to be lazy and self-absorbed, but Granger had always thought, or perhaps hoped, that he’d step up and do better when it was his turn to wear the Crown. “He did not,” Cavendish said. “He told me he would, told me not to worry, and promised that he would speak to my father, but then he did nothing.” “Where does that leave you?” Granger asked. “I have been scrambling to try and figure out what I am to do, and where I am to live,” Cavendish said. “I got a letter from my father’s agent, informing me that I will no longer be receiving my allowance. That was substantially larger than my income from the Crown, so that has meant I must relinquish my rooms in the City and it means I will have to endeavor to still look spruce, even with worn clothes.” “You are always welcome in my home,” Granger asserted. “Why didn’t you go there?” “With all the drama we had, and the scandalous rumors that were flying around, I could not risk my reputation, or yours, or Caroline’s,” he said. He was referring to the nightmare where Caroline had seduced him and Treadway in the baths. “I would suspect that rumor has largely died off,” Granger said. He had encountered no evidence of it when he was home. “That is true, but if I move into your townhouse, and when you are gone I am there alone with Caroline, the wags will begin talking again. It will not require any facts, merely innuendo,” he said. Granger could readily see how that would happen. “Then I will help you lease suitable rooms,” Granger promised. “George, I cannot rely on your charity,” he said. “John Ward has allowed me to stay with him.” Those words flew through Granger’s psyche with the same force as if he’d been hit by lightning. So that’s why Cavendish didn’t want to leave England. He didn’t want to leave Ward. “That was very nice of him, to take you in when you had nowhere to go,” Granger said stoically. Before Cavendish could respond, Granger called to Grenfell, the officer of the watch. “Mr. Grenfell, can you explain why the foretopsail is so slack?” He used that comment to walk over to where Grenfell was standing. “I’ll attend to it immediately, my lord,” Grenfell said, horrified at being found wanting in his duties, even though the foretopsail hadn’t been so slack as to warrant a public censure. Granger waited until the sail was drawing as it should be, then went to his cabin, ignoring Cavendish who was still standing on the deck, where he could torture himself in solitude.
  5. Chapter 56

    September 13, 2003 Goodwell, VA Wade I’d set up the library much as it had been for that horrible conference some two years ago after 9-11. I figured that would be the best place for everyone to meet, since there were chairs around the edge of the room, while the center was empty. The other option was the dining room table, but then the problem would be figuring out where everyone would eat, so in the end, this seemed to work best. At one end of the room I’d set up an easel with a paper pad on it, and I’d made a schematic of what we knew and what we were dealing with, such as I could piece together, to give us someplace to start. “What time does everyone get here?” Matt asked me. “This afternoon,” I said. “I planned to start our meeting at 3:00.” “Should be interesting,” he said. “That’s probably an understatement,” I said ruefully. I was pretty uptight about this meeting, but Matt was probably the only one who knew that. “Where’s your mother?” “She went for a ride this morning, and from what I can tell, after that she went to hide in her room,” I said. “Probably a good idea,” he said. “Takes some guts for her to even be here.” “She’s trying to reinvent herself,” I said with a shrug. “That means she has to clean up her act, and she’ll need all of the people here to be on her side.” “She’ll owe them,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s going to bug the shit out of her.” “I’m more worried about what kind of trouble Lord Preston is trying to cause,” I said. I decided it was important to focus on one evil maniac at a time. “I still haven’t figured out what his deal is.” “Neither have I,” Matt said. I’d shared what Brad had told me with Matt, Mary Ellen, Tiffany, and my mother, but none of us had been able to figure out what he was up to. “JP will be here. Maybe he’ll put it all together.” “Maybe,” I said, although I was more inclined to put my money on either Brad or my mother. This whole business was a little too unsavory and complicated for conventional thinking. “I just spoke to Alex,” Mary Ellen said, as she breezed into the room. “They should be here within the hour.” “Everyone else should get here soon as well,” I said. I’d already sent the car to the airport to pick up JP, Stef, and the rest of their group. “Then the fun begins,” Mary Ellen said with a chuckle. “I’m looking forward to seeing Mother explain herself.” “She’s not the only one who has pissed people off,” I said, reminding her that she’d acted pretty heinously. “The only person I’ve been unpleasant to is JJ, and he won’t be here,” she said. “Besides, they’ll all be busy with Lord Preston and Mother.” “Probably right,” Matt agreed. One of the maids walked into the room, halting our conversation. “Mr. Danfield, the car is about to pull up.” “Thank you,” I responded politely, and went to the foyer to welcome my guests to my ancestral home. Mary Ellen chose to vanish to her own room, which told me she was a little more stressed about seeing these people than she let on. Stef was first through the door, of course. “Welcome!” “Thank you so much for hosting us,” Stef said. “It’s the least I can do, considering I lived with you for over three years,” I said with a smile. “Just your presence alone was compensation enough, which is saying something, considering the size of your appetite,” JP said, cracking me up. Darius and Will were next, followed by Brad. “We can show you to your rooms,” I said, and had the staff there to assist me. “The Duke, Alex, and Nana should be arriving shortly. I plan to meet at 3:00 in the library.” “We will see you then,” JP said. They all went off to their rooms except Brad. “Jake Pike is supposed to be here soon. We missed him at the airport. Will you make sure he can get past the gates?” he said. “Of course,” I said, and went to handle that. As soon as I’d done that, I heard the sound of a helicopter. That sound drew Mary Ellen out of her room, and she, Matt and I went out front to greet our English contingent. We watched as the helicopter banked then lowered itself gently onto the front lawn, and then waited until the rotors stopped, before walking near the craft. There was no reason to get decapitated due to an overzealous greeting. Nana was the first out of the helicopter, followed by the Duke. We were engrossed in greeting them while Alex was all but whisked off by Mary Ellen. “Wade, how wonderful to see you,” Nana said, giving me a genuine hug and a kiss. “It’s good to see you too,” I said. “Welcome home.” “The weather’s a bit warmer than the last time I was here,” the Duke said. “Perhaps there will be time for riding?” “We are scheduled to meet with everyone at 3:00 in the library,” I said, cluing them into the schedule. “I’m not sure if we’ll have time after that, but you are certainly welcome to ride tomorrow.” “Then we shall play it by ear,” he pronounced. We led them up to the house, but Nana didn’t need an escort to her room, and she led the Duke off with her. Matt raised an eyebrow. “That’s certainly not proper, her sharing a room with him,” Matt joked, cracking me up. “Dude, that’s the first time I’ve heard you say ‘proper’,” I teased. At 2:55, Brad and Will appeared, followed shortly after that by the arrival of Jake Pike. “Sorry I was almost late,” he said, and looked a little breathless. “You made it on time,” Brad said, smiling at him. I was trying to decide if they’d fucked yet, but I couldn’t get a read on it. “I was delayed in DC,” he said softly, so only the four of us could hear him. “Talked to a guy at the South African Embassy. He told me that the real power in the Preston household is Lady Preston. She calls the shots, and he goes with the flow.” “So he brought the title, and respectability to the marriage, and now he is reduced to being nothing more than a doormat?” Brad asked. “We were struggling to figure out how he can at one moment be an idiot, and another be brilliant,” Jake said. “Maybe he’s only brilliant when he’s doing what his wife tells him to do.” “Maybe,” I agreed, but we all chuckled at that. Everyone else arrived, greeting each other in a relatively pleasant way, only it was restrained because there were still a lot of bad feelings. The tension levels were high, but they soared off the scale when my mother walked in. She looked incredibly chic in a gray tailored suit, and I actually felt sorry for her until I remembered all that she’d done to deserve this animosity. Still, I was impressed with her courage. “Welcome,” I said to the crowd. “We have a mystery on our hands, one that I am convinced involves all of us. The purpose of this assembly is to see if we can put our collective knowledge together and work out what is going on.” “So this is just an information session, not a strategy session?” JP asked. “I think we have to take things one step at a time,” I said. “It is important that we are open and candid, and that means that as far as these issues go, we must trust each other.” Will was sitting on the couch next to Darius, but he stood and walked up to my mother, who sat there in one of the leather side chairs like she was a statue. I knew that someone had to take the bull by the horns and address my mother’s issues; otherwise this conference would go nowhere. I’d expected that it would be Brad, who would be more on a level with her, or perhaps JP, as the head of his family. I was a little nervous that Will opted to confront her, and even more apprehensive when I saw the fire in his eyes, revealing the rage that burned behind them. “You worked pretty hard this summer to mess up my life, and to mess up the lives of Zach and JJ,” he said to her in an assertive way. “You all but destroyed JJ’s skating career, and he was the winner of the US National Championship, the best skater in the country. You attempted to destroy one of the most important relationships in my life, and you plotted to ruin Zach’s career as well. He’s one of the best running backs in the NCAA, yet you had him drugged with narcotics and threatened to blackmail him. What you did was despicable.” She swallowed hard, and then looked him in the eye. “In retrospect, my motives were positive, in that I wanted to preserve my daughter’s marriage, but my methods in doing so were not. I apologize for any harm you, Jeremy, or Zach Hayes suffered.” That blew us all away, but it didn’t take the wind out of Will’s sails. “Thank you for your apology, and I accept it on behalf of me, Zach, and my brother,” Will said. “But I want you to know that the reason this ended so calmly is because Wade all but begged us to back off and let it roll off our backs.” “That would seem to be a wise course of action in this situation,” the Duke said, in a vain attempt to save my mother. “I may only be seventeen, but I’ve been raised by some pretty smart guys, and I’m not an idiot,” Will said. “I’ve got my family behind me, and my friends behind me, at least most of the time.” As he said that last phrase, he glared at Nana, who almost recoiled from his intense look. “So we’re good, and all is well, but if you fuck with me again, I will hunt you down and make sure you can never harm me or the people I care about again.” Mary Ellen leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Holy shit, I see what you mean.” I’d told her earlier that Will was hell on wheels, and she’d finally gotten to see him in action. It was all I could do to refrain from laughing. “Then let us both hope our interests remain aligned,” Mother said coldly. This had to grate on her to the extreme, to be lectured and threatened by some young punk, but amazingly enough, it seemed to get through to her. I decided that having Will do this, confront her, would probably work out well. She wouldn’t take his threats seriously, at least not visibly, but she would know he was dangerous. If Brad, JP, or Stef had said that, she may have seen it as a challenge. “Cool,” Will said, and smiled at her. He held out his hand, and Mother stood up and shook it, returning his smile half-heartedly. “One moment young man,” Nana said, as Will went to walk back to his seat. “And what did I do to make you think I wasn’t your friend?” She expected Will to melt under her assault, but he was still pretty fired up. “Uh oh,” Matt said to me sotto voce. “When Trevor was beaten up, you jumped on the bandwagon, accusing me of being behind it,” he said to her boldly. “Were you aware that I had pledged not to do anything to him?” She said nothing. “Were you?” Will demanded. “I was,” she responded through clenched teeth. “Then I would have expected that you, as a friend, would believe me, and would have faith in me, and that you’d have my back,” he spat at her. “Instead, the first thing you do is sell me down the river.” He turned to address the Duke. “Your Grace, I would think you would be a good arbiter of honor in this situation. Is that the way one is supposed to treat one’s friends?” This whole scene was so hysterical, I felt my controls starting to fail me, especially when Matt and Mary Ellen were visibly snickering. “I would be most interested to know if that’s appropriate behavior as well,” Mary Ellen chimed in, just to perpetuate the situation. “It is not,” the Duke pronounced, getting a very foul look from Nana. “You know, you have been such a rock in my life,” Will said to Nana. “When we went to Buzz Dalby’s funeral, one of his nephews took me to see his rodeo horse. This guy was a complete asshole, and the first thing he did was shock the hell out of the horse with a prod.” It was funny to see all of us get upset at that, at the thought of a horse suffering from abuse. “After a rather unpleasant conversation, I bet him that I could saddle the horse and ride her around the ring. If I could do it, I got the horse, but if he won, I had to give him $5,000. I made the bet because I knew I could do it, because you were the person who trained me how to deal with horses. The stable hands were stunned that in the hour I had to prepare, I didn’t try to mount her at all, I just put ointment on her wounds, and eyeballed her, and talked to her. You taught me to build that trust. So when it came time to ride her, she tried to buck me off, but not all that hard, and I was able to do it. Now she lives at Escorial. That’s all you.” Nana smiled. “Good job.” Then she got up and gave Will a big hug. “I won’t doubt you again.” “Thanks,” he said, and then sat down. Sometimes Will’s theatrics created really explosive situations, but in this case, he’d actually managed to eliminate most of the tension in the room. My mother had to deal with him, but when she’d apologized to Will, it was as if she was apologizing to all of us. And by calling Nana out, he’d dropped her and the Duke off of their high horses, as they both tended to look down their noses at the rest of us, JP excluded, as being junior to them. “Now that we have gotten those things out of the way, I would like to discuss the situation we’re currently facing,” Brad said. “So far, the death toll in this deal is at least three people, and I’m not willing to see anyone else lose their life.” “Three people?” Nana asked. “Buzz Dalby, my pilot, and my copilot,” Brad said. “It seems that whatever is going on is tied to Lord Preston, and none of us have been able to figure out what exactly his deal is.” “He is a real estate developer in South Africa,” Alex said. “He is not,” Brad said to him. “He is linked to the drug cartels in South Africa, and he is currently in Mexico trying to stir up trouble with those cartels.” Alex looked questioningly at his grandfather, who seemed to be gathering his thoughts. “My son has been married twice. His first marriage was to Alex’s mother. He then remarried. It is his second wife that is the source of these problems.” “Please enlighten us,” I said, to prod him on. “It will require a bit of family history, so I would impose on you to be patient until I have finished laying it out,” the Duke said. “You have the floor,” JP said in a friendly way. “The first Duke of Suffolk had three sons, and these three sons pursued very different paths. The oldest, my ancestor, was a politician and a courtier, as was expected of someone of his rank, especially in those days,” he said. We all ignored his incredibly snobby tone. “The youngest son went into the Royal Navy and became one of Britain’s most successful naval officers of the Napoleonic Wars.” “Are you on speaking terms with that branch of the family?” Mary Ellen asked. “There have been various family tussles that have made them less than intimate with us,” the Duke said. “They are friendly acquaintances at this point, nothing more.” “If for no other reason than they usually support the Labour Party,” Alex joked. “That is a good reason,” the Duke said, being the dedicated Tory that he was. “It was the middle son who caused the most problems, and the great schism in our family. His name was Albert, and he was forced to leave England when the first Duke all but disowned him for his gambling and whoring.” “He was a party animal,” Will said to Darius. “He was purportedly one of the most charming men in the realm, but completely unscrupulous, and devoid of morals. He went to India to make his fortune, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.” “Isn’t that a good thing?” I asked, trying to follow his reasoning. “You are probably familiar with the Opium Wars between Britain and China,” the Duke said. “Albert Granger was responsible for setting up and administering the opium trade.” I wasn’t completely up on that side of history, but JP was. “As I recall, the justification for that was that the Chinese would only legally accept silver in trade for tea, but there was illegal demand for opium. In that way, by exporting opium to pay for tea, the East India Company was able to avoid a massive silver drain,” JP said. “That was the challenge,” the Duke said. “So Albert Granger was, to all appearances, a nineteenth century drug lord,” Brad concluded. The Duke looked intensely irritated by that, and then relented. “That is a reasonable way to analogize it,” he said in his lofty way. “When Charles, my son, found himself single, he opted to date and marry Sabrina Granger.” “Why is that significant?” I asked. She would have become Sabrina Granger when she married Lord Preston anyway. “Because that was her maiden name,” the Duke said. “Sabrina Granger is a descendant of Albert Granger. Charles would have had me believe that their marriage was the reunion of two branches of the family after all these years.” “But you did not,” JP said, stating the question as a fact. “Why?” “Because they had not given up on their primary business venture, narcotics, and there was no place in our family tree for such miscreants,” he said, the disdain dripping off his words. “My father was still alive then, and he was quite well-connected politically. It was due to his influence that I was able to retain Alex in Britain after their marriage, even when Charles left for South Africa.” My mind was reeling from this. My mother had thought Lady Preston was a DeBeers heiress, but that would seem to be wrong, unless she was linked to that family as well. I looked at her and could see her smirking, which was almost as scary as the Duke’s comments. What did she know about this, and what new scheme was she plotting? “Why didn’t you tell us this before?” Mary Ellen demanded. The Duke gave her a patronizing look, as if to challenge her right to grill him like a prosecutor, but he answered her anyway. “It was a tawdry affair, and as we have all but disowned Charles, there seemed no reason to bring up skeletons in family closets. In the same way, we did not dig too deeply into some of your past relationships or family matters.” I found his attitude infuriating, enough that it sparked me to say something. “I hardly think that failing to disclose to us that Mary Ellen’s future father-in-law is a drug lord is a tawdry skeleton best left hidden.” “Wade, we do our best to pretend it isn’t so, and perhaps that has led us to believe that to be the case. I am sorry if our self-delusion led us to deceive you,” the Duke said. I nodded, because no good would come of fighting over this. “I talked to some guys in the South African embassy,” Jake said. “They said that Lady Preston pretty much runs the show, and that Lord Preston does what she tells him to do.” “Sounds like they know him pretty well,” Alex said disdainfully. “I certainly hope people don’t say that about us,” Mary Ellen said playfully. “Not at this point, anyway,” he said, smiling at her. “What happens when Your Grace sadly passes on, and Lord Preston becomes the Duke of Suffolk?” Stef asked. “That will not happen,” the Duke said firmly. “How can you preclude him from claiming his inheritance, his title?” JP asked. “Property no longer passes with the title, so I have structured our estate such that it will go directly to Alex and his heirs,” the Duke said. “Yes, but that does not affect the dukedom, the title,” JP countered. “That may be a tougher battle,” the Duke said. He was clearly dodging the issue, but it seemed impolite to press him further. I wondered what big scheme he had dreamed up. Yet another thing to worry about. “I learned one other thing,” Jake said, taking the pressure off the Duke. “Indeed?” JP asked. “I learned the code word for their plans,” he said. “When you say ‘their’ plans, you are referring to Lord and Lady Preston?” JP asked, for clarity. “Yes,” Jake confirmed. “I didn’t learn what it meant though. It’s Blankford.” If he had set off a bomb in the room, it would have gotten a less volatile reaction. “That’s Ricky’s title,” Mary Ellen said, showing some maternal concern. “Are they planning to do something to Ricky?” “Do Lord and Lady Preston have children?” I asked. I already knew exactly where this was going; I was just trying to guide the others to the same conclusion. “They do,” the Duke said. He looked truly flustered, something that would have shocked Alex if he weren’t doing even worse. In fact, Alex looked more freaked out now than he did at Thanksgiving dinner when Mary Ellen told him she was carrying his baby. “They have a son, who is ten, and a daughter, who is eight.” “And the only thing standing between them and inheriting the Dukedom of Suffolk is Alex and Ricky,” I said, laying it out there. “That’s why they called it Operation Blankford,” Mary Ellen exclaimed, making the whole thing sound like it was casted as a script for Mission Impossible. “Alex, we have to protect our son.” “He’s quite safe at home, dear,” Alex said, “but I will make some phone calls to make sure of it.” “Let’s take a break so you can do that,” I said, recognizing that everyone was much too upset to go on without dealing with the basic security issues. “Before you go, I’d like to know if you’ve told anyone you were going to be here,” Jake asked Alex and the Duke. “Only our staff,” Alex said. “I need to talk to you,” Jake said to me urgently. “We’ll meet back here after dinner,” I announced. I led Jake, Brad, Matt, and Will off to the Conservatory where we could speak privately. “What kind of security do you have here?” Jake asked. “We have a staff of about fifteen people,” I explained. “Four of them are employed in the house, five are employed in the stables, and the others manage the grounds. The household staff generally is responsible for admitting people to the estate.” “Do you have any weapons here?” he asked. He was starting to freak me out just a bit. “You think they’re going to attack us here?” Matt asked. “It would give them an ideal opportunity,” Jake said. “Everyone who stands in their way is here except for an infant left back in England.” “And if they were all killed, who would fight to keep that infant out of Lord Preston’s hands,” I mused. Presumably Ricky’s paternal grandfather, who would then be the Duke of Suffolk, would be seen as an ideal guardian. “We have some hunting rifles, but that’s it.” “I think we need to hire security, and have them brought in now,” Jake said urgently. “I see no reason why such a precaution is unwise,” JP said. “If you give the word, I can set it up, but you’ll have to coordinate with your grounds people,” Jake said. I looked at all of them, and even got a slight nod from Matt. “Do it,” I said. September 13, 2003 Tribeca, NY JJ I was lounging on the couch, watching the taped results of the Nebelhorn competition. It had taken place last week, and had been won by a Canadian, Nicholas Young, but I’d been too busy to actually view it until now. Even as I watched Young skate, I grudgingly gave him kudos for doing really well, especially since he’d been competing in the juniors last year and had just made the jump to the seniors. I knew from personal experience how tough that could be. I knew the guy who won silver pretty well. Scott Smith skated in Boston, and was a nice enough guy. The guy who won third place, Nick LaRoche, always seemed like he was a mobster, but maybe that was because he came from a totally fucked up family. I watched them skate, and then watched the others who didn’t even make the podium. Watching them skate for the cheering crowds was kind of a bummer, since there was no denying the rush of the competition. If I’d have ramped up my rehab and pushed it, I could have been there. I tried to objectively compare my routine to Nick Young’s, and I was pretty sure I could have beaten him. Then again, remembering the World’s “disaster in Dallas”, it was a good idea not to take anything for granted. I sat up and instinctively straightened my hair, then thought about what my life would have been like if I were still skating. I’d be in that pressure cooker environment, with all kinds of stress, but I’d also have a staff taking care of everything and fawning all over me. I remembered the victories, and that made me smile, then I remembered the defeats, and that was less positive. Then I remembered the stifling moral code that was inflicted on me, demanding that I be pure and chaste, and that I do nothing to ruin my public image. That had been truly awful. In the end, I decided that I’d made the right call. I was here in New York, doing well with my social life, doing well in school, and enjoying my freedom. There was no reason for me to miss the highs of winning a competition when the price to pay was so great. The door flew open, both annoying and scaring me at the same time. I jumped up, wondering who was bursting into the condo on Saturday afternoon, and was surprised to see that it was Carullo. “Sorry,” he said, since he knew how much I hated loud entries like the one he’d just made. “Hands were full.” He was carrying all kinds of stuff, so it was no wonder he’d all but busted down the door. “No problem,” I said pleasantly, shocking the shit out of him. He probably thought my message was just so much bullshit. But my brothers had done a good job of coaching me on how to handle him, and being bitchy wasn’t going to lure him out of Luka’s grasp and into mine. “Here, let me help you.” “Thanks,” he said, and let me pick up some of the lighter things. I followed him with his stuff to his room, and set it on his floor. I’d carry it back, but he could sort through it. He must have thought that was a good idea, since he did the same thing with the crap he was carrying. “Who are you, and what have you done with JJ?” I laughed. “I’m not always a dick.” “No, you’re not,” he said. He walked up to me and wrapped his arms around me gently, then gave me a nice kiss, one that I returned, making sure not to be more enthusiastic than he was. It wasn’t too hard, since he smelled pretty nasty, like a combination of sweat and ashes. He led me over to his bed, where we both sat down. “You weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow,” I said. “Came back early,” he said simply. “Did you have fun?” I asked, even as I secretly hoped their weekend had been miserable, and that Luka had been bitten by a snake. “It got old. You can only handle so much beautiful nature,” he said. I agreed with him, but I meant it, and he didn’t. “Well it’s nice to have you back,” I said. “You want to go get something to eat?” “I just had lunch,” he said. Something was bugging him, but rather than prod him, I figured I’d let him tell me what it was. “Maybe we can do dinner later.” “That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll leave you alone so you can unpack.” “Jay,” he said to stop me. “I’m sorry.” “What for?” I mean, I thought he should be sorry, but I wanted to know why. “For leading you on, and then for being a total dick about it when I went away,” he said, then sighed loudly. “I came back because I felt guilty.” That was irritating, that he only came back because he felt guilty. “You were honest when we started hooking up. You told me you couldn’t be in a relationship. I should have asked you why, and you should have told me.” “I should have,” he said. “Let me clean up and then we’ll go out, and I’ll tell you what’s been going on in my fucked up mind.” “Dude, I don’t know if we have that much time,” I joked, making him smile, and then I left him alone to wash the nasty camping smell off his body.
  6. Chapter 55

    September 12, 2003 Tribeca, NY Brad It was a beautiful afternoon, about 75 degrees and sunny, so I’d taken my laptop up to the rooftop deck. I found JP and Stef there, drinking tea and reading. “Good morning,” I said. JP, as was typical for him, greeted me then re-immersed himself in whatever he was reading. “You seem to be in a good mood,” Stef said, which almost ruined the mood he was talking about, since it almost implied that I shouldn’t be. “I am,” I affirmed. “Have you heard from Jake?” he asked. “I have not,” I said, then sighed, knowing that I’d have to open up to at least Stef on this issue. “I’m wondering if he’s running away from me.” JP looked up from his article. “You certainly do know how to pique JP’s interest,” Stef said. “My conversation was evidently not as stimulating.” “Everything about you is stimulating,” JP said to Stef, then focused on me. “And how did you scare Jake away.” “I made out with him,” I said. “He is one amazing kisser.” “If you had said you showed him your erection, that would have made more sense,” Stef joked, referring to how hung I was. “He told me what his deal is, at least as regards being kinky,” I said, and almost laughed at how they both looked at me with full attention. “You are going to enlighten us?” JP asked, which was hilarious, because he had to be dying to know to actually ask me about it. I smirked at him to annoy him, and almost laughed when it worked. “He only barebacks, and he only bottoms,” I said. “That is very dangerous,” Stef said, and seemed as horrified as I’d been. “Just because HIV is not a death sentence anymore is no reason to actively seek it out.” “It is still a death sentence for some,” I said sadly, thinking of Kevin, who was doing pretty badly. “I talked to Cody yesterday, and even though he’d tried to be upbeat for me, he got pretty sad when he told me that Kevin isn’t doing any better.” “That is unfortunate,” Stef said sadly. I quickly switched the topic back to Jake, before we let Kevin’s situation completely depress us. “Jake claims that he is immune to HIV,” I explained. They both paused and looked at me blankly as they thought about that. “That sounds like nothing more than a convenient excuse,” Stef pronounced. “I think it is possible,” JP said. “I have read about that. There are supposedly some people who seem to be lucky in that regard.” “I talked to Jack yesterday, and he said the same thing,” I said nervously. “Are you planning to bareback Jake?” Stef asked. “I’m thinking about it,” I told him, then grimaced. “Jack sure wasn’t in favor of it.” “That is quite a risk,” JP noted. “It is, and it kind of puts me into a Catch-22,” I said. They stared at me, waiting for me to explain. “If I fuck him, I take the risk that he’s lying to me and that he is positive, and that he makes me positive. If I don’t, I’m basically telling him I don’t believe him, and that I don’t trust him.” “I would hope you remember that trusting someone in a business or professional capacity does not necessarily mean you should trust them regarding personal issues,” Stef said. “Yet in this situation, when things are so intertwined, I can understand your dilemma,” JP said. I gave him an appreciative look, since that was my read on it as well. “Jack scared the shit out of me by regaling me with all the other nasty diseases I could possibly contract,” I grumbled. “He covered everything from gonorrhea and syphilis to anal warts.” “That is probably not a bad thing for all of us to consider,” JP said, even as we cringed at the thought of all the various STDs that were out there. “He used to be a top, but he was shot in the back, and that caused nerve damage,” I told them. “So he can’t fully get an erection.” “Then sadly, we are kindred spirits,” JP said. “We have a new pill to try,” Stef said to JP hopefully, even as he patted his knee in a loving way. “We are going to try Cialis.” “Good luck,” I said. “Jake says those drugs won’t help him.” “That is unfortunate,” Stef said sympathetically. “That was the one thing that was positive about my call with Jack,” I said. “He told me that they’ve made a lot of progress on treating spinal injuries, and that maybe they could help him out.” “I suspect he would appreciate that,” Stef said, which was an understatement. “But I am assuming that, being a top yourself, you would not be overly upset by his disability?” “I’m not,” I told them, then grinned. “He has an amazingly cute ass.” “That would be an added incentive,” JP said. “It sounds, based on what he told me, that he’s only a bottom because that’s pretty much all he can do, but I could be wrong about that,” I told them. “Regardless, I like the guy, and I find him really attractive.” “It sounds like you had a nice interlude,” JP said. “Interlude?” I asked, teasing him. “Yes,” he snapped slightly, making me chuckle. “What makes you think you scared him away?” “Our conversation ended on a positive note, and was actually pretty positive throughout,” I said. “But he was suddenly intent on going to Washington, and it seems that he could have put that off until today.” Jake had made it seem like he’d been totally focused on working on solving the land problem, but I thought there was more to it than that. “Maybe he felt vulnerable after he revealed so much of himself,” Stef suggested. “That is possible,” JP said, but he sounded skeptical. “It is also possible that, in addition to that, he was leaving to give you some space to contemplate things.” I blinked a few times as my mind processed that. “If he’d have been here, especially last night, I would have felt pretty pressured to sleep with him or not.” “I would think those would be your only two decisions,” Stef said, giving me shit for explaining that badly. I gave him a faux dirty look. “It would have forced me to make a decision before I had a chance to work my way through it,” I said, getting what JP was saying. “That was a really nice thing for him to do.” “It was, if that is indeed why he did it,” JP said, reminding me in his typical way that we were merely speculating. He took that opportunity to change the subject. “I had a chance to update Wade on our conversations about Lord Preston.” “What did he think?” I asked. “He did not express an immediate opinion,” JP said, then looked at me curiously. “What do you think?” “I’m skeptical,” I said. “This whole thing isn’t adding up.” “You do not think Jake was being honest with us?” Stef asked. “That would certainly make your decision to sleep with him easier if he was not.” It would be frustrating and annoying if he decided that Jake wasn’t reliable and trustworthy before I’d found out the truth about him. I didn’t need Stef questioning Jake’s every move and statement. “I don’t think that’s it,” I said, struggling with how to explain my intuitive feeling on this. “Based on what he told me, I have to believe that Lord Preston is either a blithering idiot or a virtual genius and sociopath.” They began to mull that problem over. “Those would appear to be incompatible traits.” “They would,” I confirmed. “I don’t know much about South African society, but I’m supposed to believe that he’s quite the A-list person. I find it hard to believe he’d be so readily accepted by polite society if he was a drug lord.” “I would think that his title and his breeding give him an instant entre into their elite social class, but I tend to agree with you. Organized crime bosses are not generally welcome in such circles,” JP said. “If he’s a blithering idiot, then he’s walking into a trap in Mexico, and they’ll make short work of him,” I said, thinking through my two options on Preston. “What if he’s not?” JP asked, just to get my thoughts. “What if he is quite shrewd?” “Then there is a lot more going on here than we know about,” I said. “Let us hypothesize that is the case,” Stef said. “What else could there be?” “I don’t know,” I said, frustrated. “But you think Jake is being honest?” JP asked me. “I don’t know that either, but I think he is,” I said. “Look, I’m betting he’s getting intel from grunts on the ground. They’ll know what’s going on tactically, but they won’t see the big picture.” “If he were being thorough, would he not have vetted that information and put it into the proper context?” Stef asked, and seemed glad to have something to snipe at Jake about. “I don’t think that’s all him,” I told him. “He found out what’s happening in Mexico, and that’s all we could really expect from him at this point.” “One would hope that when the playing field is expanded, the rest of us would be able to offer some insights,” JP said. “I suspect that’s what our meeting on Saturday is about,” I said. “I wonder if Elizabeth Danfield or Alexandra Carmichael have the big picture?” Stef mused. “I doubt Elizabeth does,” I opined. “I think if she knew, she’d have been more active in this situation. Wade’s been at Goodwell with her for a while now, and he told me he sensed confusion from her.” “He shared that with me as well,” JP confirmed. “I have no idea what Alexandra knows, and I’m not sure it matters. I’m not likely going to be able to get much information out of her, at least not without a price,” I said with dread. “If this situation continues, where we do not know what is going on, it may be worth the price,” Stef said. “Another missing link in this whole thing is Lord Preston’s wife,” I said. “Mike told me Alexandra said he would not like her, because she was devoid of honor.” It bugged me that I’d all but forgotten that fact, and wondered if it would end up being important. “Perhaps the Marchioness has a role in this,” JP mused. “Yet another person we will have to try to investigate,” Stef said in a grumpy way. I decided we’d talked about this enough, so I changed the subject. “I talked to Will. He and Darius are at the hotel. I told them they could come back whenever they wanted.” “Our schedule is flexible enough to accommodate that,” Stef joked, since we had nothing to do today. Today was the day we were supposed to go to New Jersey, but I had dealt with enough over the past few days, and I’d ultimately bailed on that plan. I’d had a very unpleasant conversation with Jeanine’s mother when I’d called her and told her, but I decided that it was worth it. “How did it feel to have both of your sons running off with significantly older partners?” “You don’t think older men are sexy?” I asked, pushing Stef into a corner. “I am also most interested to know your thoughts on this,” JP said, piling on to give him a bad time as well. “I think they can be very sexy,” Stef said. “I just wondered how you felt about the age difference?” He got a nasty look from JP, inasmuch as one could get that kind of overt facial expression from him, since Stef was poking at me as if trying to start an argument. It was a wasted effort on his part, because I wasn’t going to fall into that trap. “I don’t think it makes much difference what I think,” I said honestly. I was quite aware that my sons would not welcome or tolerate my involvement with their decisions on whom to fuck. “But it really didn’t bother me.” “That is a bit surprising,” Stef said, probing. “Will and Darius are responsible, and mostly make good decisions. In this case, they’re walking into the situations with Patrick and Bellona with their eyes wide open,” I explained. “I also don’t think either one of those liaisons is more than a fleeting hook-up.” “Patrick is very handsome,” Stef said. “I was kind of surprised that I liked him,” I said. “After he snaked Ella away from Darius, it would have been more likely that I’d keep him pretty far away from me.” “I am not sure that ‘snaked Ella away’ is an accurate way to explain what happened,” JP said, with his fussy sense of justice. “Well, if snake is a metaphor for his dick, I’d say he did,” I joked. “For a fashionista, he’s pretty down-to-earth, and seems just like your typical bro.” “You like him because he is not bitchy and flamboyant?” Stef challenged. He could be both or either of those things, so it was no wonder he was asking me this question. “No, I like him because he’s not a huge drama queen, and because he’s nice to Will,” I said. Our conversation was truncated when JJ came out the door, pausing briefly to put on his stylish sunglasses. “It’s nice up here,” he said pleasantly. “It is,” Stef agreed. “How are you this morning?” I looked at my watch. “I think calling this morning is a stretch,” I joked, since it was already 11:30. “I took my time getting ready,” JJ joked back. He was in such a good mood it was almost disturbing, and a bit surreal. “You look good,” I said, and he did. Even when he had been skating, his muscle tone had always been subtle, and now it was even more hidden since he wasn’t constantly on the ice. I grimaced to myself when I thought that he’d turned into a twink. “What are your plans for the day?” Stef asked him. “There’s a new store on Fifth Avenue I wanted to check out,” JJ said. “That sounds interesting,” Stef said, smiling, even as he got up to leave. “I called for the car already,” JJ said, smirking since he’d known Stef would want to go. “I figured we could get lunch while we’re out.” “Then we will see you gentlemen later, for dinner,” Stef said to us. JP and I stared at them in surprise as they left, since this whole departure was unexpected, and since Stef and JJ were neither one of them speedy when they went somewhere. “It would seem we are on our own for lunch,” I said. “Perhaps we should go back to that pub around the corner?” “That sounds like an excellent plan,” he said, and so we walked back to the same pub we’d gone to when I’d arrived from China, and drank almost as much as we did that time. September 13, 2003 New York, NY Will “We are ready to leave,” Stef said to me. “Give me a minute,” I snapped, then apologized with my eyes. It wasn’t his fault Zach hadn’t called me on September 11, and it wasn’t his fault that Zach hadn’t called me on September 12. “I just need to make a phone call.” “That is fine,” he said soothingly, which was almost more annoying, but I managed to control my emotions and just smile at him. I waited until he left the room, and then called Zach. I didn’t think he’d answer, I didn’t think there was any way he’d actually man up and talk to me after blowing me off, so it didn’t surprise me when my call went to voice mail. I listened to his standard, phone-company derived greeting, then left a message: “Hey Zach, it’s Will. I just wanted to wish you good luck on your game today. Get a touchdown for me!” I smiled when I thought about how he’d react when he got it, how he’d feel guilty and like total shit. Darius had coached me on this; on how much smarter and better it was to take the high road. It may be the smart thing to do, but it certainly wasn’t the easy path to take. I’d been pretty messed up after September 11 came and went with no call from Zach. If it weren’t for Patrick’s amazing sexual healing, I’d have probably been a basket case. I smiled when I thought about him, and what a total animal he turned out to be in bed. He wasn’t aggressive and dominant like Carullo, but he was definitely in charge, he certainly had some stamina, and he was surprisingly resilient. It was almost tough to keep up with him. Almost. I was sitting on the bed, staring at my phone, when Stef walked back into the room. I stood up abruptly, feeling bad that I was dicking around when everyone was ready to leave. “Am I interrupting you?” “No, I just finished my phone call, and I was thinking about it,” I said, then sighed. “I called Zach and left him a message to wish him luck today, even though I’m pissed off at him for not calling me since I got to New York.” “He did not call you?” he asked, shocked. I just shook my head. “I am sorry. There is only one reason I can think of for that to happen.” “What?” I asked curiously, even though I was dreading the answer, that he’d tell me Zach had found someone else. Then again, I already knew Zach had found someone else; he’d found Joe. “He must have become completely absorbed into the world of college sports. I saw this happen to Jeff Hayes, and we all saw it impact Matt. It is almost like a supernatural being that has captured him and hauled him off to its lair.” “I get that, but it just shows how I’m so off his radar, and completely not part of his life anymore,” I said sadly. Stef reached over and wiped away the tear that fell out of my eye. His touch was gentle and caring. Stef decided to change the subject, evidently having decided that there was nothing more we could do to solve my problem with Zach. “I have not had a chance to thank you for what you said at the dinner.” “I meant it,” I told him honestly, “and Darius agreed with me.” “I assumed since you said it, you meant it,” he teased. I smiled. “It was a good opportunity to tell the world how much we appreciate you.” “And since you are honoring JP at the talent show, this was an opportunity to do the same thing for me, so I did not get jealous,” he concluded, raising his eyebrow in an accusatory way. “I didn’t think I had to worry about you being jealous of Grand,” I said, tossing it back at him directly. “You do not,” he said firmly. “I always think of you guys as a team, so when we do something for Grand, in my mind, it’s for you too,” I told him. “At the same time, it’s important to single you out once in a while.” “I appreciate that you did that,” he said. “Your approach is exactly as it should be. JP and I are partners, not competitors.” “Good,” I said. We smashed our fingers together, a sign stronger than saying ‘I love you’, then followed that up with a meaningful hug. He patted my cheek then walked out, giving me a minute to pull myself together. I sighed and walked out the door, bracing myself for a round of chaos. “You are sure you do not want to join us?” Stef asked JJ. “I really don’t want to deal with Mary Ellen, especially since Alex and I are at a good place,” he said. “If I see them there together, I may just really fuck things up.” “I would have thought you may enjoy that,” Stef teased. JJ chuckled. “It has some appeal, but I’m good.” It was obvious to me, at least, that JJ was staying here to wait for Carullo to get back. I wasn’t sure if Stef got that or not. Dad gave JJ a big hug, but avoided a long conversation, probably because he was so hungover. We’d picked him and Grand up at that neighborhood pub last night, and it had taken Darius, JJ, and me together to lug their drunk asses back to the condo. They’d both been hilarious. “Be good,” Darius said, and gave JJ a perfunctory hug. They’d kind of worked things out, but JJ still had some ground to cover with Darius. In actuality, probably the next time they saw each other, they’d be fine, but as of right now, Darius was keeping a distance between them, and it was obvious in the way he said goodbye to JJ. “They say ‘save the best for last’,” I joked, as I took my turn. He swallowed hard, which meant he was going to apologize or do something similarly demeaning. “I really am sorry for being such a dick.” “It’s over, remember?” I said. I didn’t want him carrying a bunch of guilt around. “Take care of yourself, and let me know how things work out with Carullo.” “If they work out,” he said skeptically. “I think he’s one of those guys where if you chase after him, he’ll run away from you,” I said. “All you can do is be pleasant and fun so he wants to be around you.” “I don’t know if I can do that,” JJ said, cracking me up. “Then just focus on the part where you don’t chase him,” I said, laughing. “Chasing him will probably work just as well as chasing Zach,” JJ said, which was true, but the comment seared into me, since he was a touchy subject. “Zach doesn’t need to worry about me chasing after him,” I said coldly. I gave him a warm but not overpowering hug, then followed the others out to the elevator. “We probably should have flown down there last night,” Stef said. “A few of us were in no condition to fly,” I said, smirking at Dad and Grand. They ignored me, but a closer look at my dad made me think his skin was almost green. The elevator doors opened and he pushed past us, charged through the lobby and out the front door, and puked in the gutter. “Dude, you’re like a bum,” Darius said, shaking his head in disdain even as he walked past Dad. The rest of us did the same thing, and then waited in the limo for him to pull himself together. “Better let him sit next to the window,” I said. He gave me a dirty look, but it turned out to be a smart idea, since twenty minutes later he had to puke out of that very same window. “It is a good thing Jake is not with us,” Stef said. “That is most unattractive.” “Whatever,” Dad snapped softly, then gave Grand a really nasty look. “How come you never get sick after you drink so much?” “I think it is because alcohol kills bacteria, and since I am so pure and perfect, it has no battles to fight inside me,” Grand said in his pontificating way, which was both cute and hilarious. “You, who are saturated with evil, clearly have a much tougher battle.” Dad rolled down the window and puked again. “Clearly,” Stef said. We got to the airport and boarded the plane, headed for Charlottesville. As soon as it took off, Dad vanished to the back, to the guest bedroom, making all of us chuckle. “No keg stands for him,” Darius said, referring to Dad. “He could do them just fine, it’s keeping all that beer down that would challenge him,” I said. “So how was your time in New York?” Stef asked Darius. I had to hide my grin, since I knew where he was going. “Okay,” Darius said in his clipped way. “And how was Bellona?” Stef asked, raising an eyebrow. I repressed a chuckle and got a dirty look from Darius. “Good,” he said. “It seems appropriate that we are flying to Goodwell when this topic comes up, since it is at that location that you told us you wanted us to be more interested in your sex life,” Grand said loftily. “It is most appropriate,” I said, mimicking him. Darius sighed. “It was one of the best times I ever had.” That surprised even me. “Indeed?” Stef asked. “Most of the women I’ve been with are my age, and no matter what I do, they always hold back a little bit. It’s like there’s some guilt thing that tells them they’re not supposed to have that much fun. The girls my age that do, they seem to come with other issues.” “Makes sense,” I said, since I could see how my female friends were all worried about being too slutty. “With Bellona, she doesn’t give a shit about that at all. She knows how much fun sex can be, and she wants to enjoy it,” Darius said. “It’s pretty obvious that she finds me to be hot, and that’s kind of awesome.” “It is very validating to be worshiped,” Stef joked with a smile. “No shit,” Darius said. “And she doesn’t say no.” “What does that mean?” Stef asked. “If I want to have sex, she’ll have sex with me,” he said. “She doesn’t say that she’s tired, she doesn’t suggest we do something else, she goes for it, and when she does, she puts herself into in completely. She’s not just doing it for me.” “I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that she appreciates how attractive you are?” Grand asked. “That’s part of it, but I think another part is that she’s a confident woman who knows what she wants,” Darius said. “Or maybe because she’s older,” I said, getting a dirty look from Stef. “Well don’t women peak at an older age than men?” “Research suggests that men hit their sexual peak when they are approximately 20 years old, while for women it tends to be in their mid to late 30’s,” Grand said, sounding like he was quoting an academic journal. “Cool,” I said. “The best is yet to come.” “Bellona is older than her mid-30s,” Stef noted. “Maybe she’s a late bloomer,” Darius joked. “So that means Patrick is past his sexual prime.” “Dude, if that’s the case, I would have been scared to be with him when he was 20,” I said. “He’s an animal.” “Ella didn’t think so,” Darius said, kind of blowing our minds. “She talked to you about sex with Patrick?” I asked. “When we went to Goodwell after September 11,” Darius said, even as we all worked not to let that memory drown us in sadness. “She told me that no one ignited her body like I did. She said Patrick was nice, but not all that enthusiastic.” “Perhaps Patrick is more stimulated by a male partner than a female partner,” Stef mused. “Cool,” I said, even as I began to think about Patrick in a whole different way. “It’s still a dick thing to do, talking about the guy she’s with to someone else.” Yet another thing to put in my reasons-to-not-like-Ella file.
  7. Faces for Mark's Stories

    I visualize Lord Preston as balding
  8. Chapter 54

    September 11, 2003 Tribeca, NY Brad We all convened in the great room. I’d already eaten breakfast, as had JP and Stef, but Will and Darius hadn’t had a chance, so they sat on the couch eating cereal. They weren’t early risers, and Darius had probably had to hustle to make it back here by 9 in the morning. JJ sat next to Will, but he wasn’t eating anything. Jake came walking out, looking great in casual clothes, carrying an energy bar and a cup of coffee. “Thanks for the energy bar,” he said to JJ. “No problem,” JJ said in a friendly way. “Help yourself to anything you want.” “I thought you had a cook?” Darius asked, as if just figuring out why there was no real breakfast. From his tone, it seemed as if he didn’t have a meeting of the minds with JJ like Will did. “It’s her day off,” JJ said. “She asked for Thursdays and Sundays off.” “Let’s hope we have something scheduled for lunch,” Darius said. “Having Jacinta absent serves our plans,” JP said in his imperious way, but he was right. If she were here, we’d have to watch what we said. “What’s our plan for today?” Will asked, getting us on track. “We are going to meet with Jake and hopefully he will enlighten us as to what he discovered in Mexico. After that, our afternoon is free. We have a gala to go to this evening,” Stef said. “A gala?” Will asked dubiously. “Yes,” Stef said. “It will probably be similar to the one you attended last weekend.” “Does that mean you get to blow someone in the bathroom?” JJ asked, joking. We were all a little stunned that he was being jovial, and not bitchy. “If I’m lucky,” Will said. “Uh, I told a few people you’d be there,” JJ said to the group. “When you say ‘you’, who are you referring to?” Darius asked coldly. “You, Will, Stef, and Dad,” JJ said. The four of us looked at each other with dread. “What does that mean?” Darius demanded. It was rare that he was the bitchy and difficult person in the group, but I attributed it to his anger at JJ and the fact that he was probably tired after his night with Bellona. I tried not to cringe at the thought that he was sleeping with a woman who was older than me. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some recognition of your escape from the towers two years ago,” JP said. “That’s bullshit,” Darius said. “I don’t want that. I don’t want to deal with that.” Then he turned on JJ. “This is what happens when you open your mouth. It’s as toxic as your tattle-tale routine. Just shut the fuck up.” “They just asked me who was going to attend,” JJ said defensively. “Darius,” I said firmly, getting him to look at me. “This isn’t a day to enjoy, it’s a day to endure. Let’s go with the flow, and we’ll get through whatever they throw at us, just like we always do.” “Just like we always do,” Will parroted sadly. “This isn’t JJ’s fault, he was simply asked a question, and there’s no reason for us to argue with each other,” I said, mostly to Darius. “Fine,” Darius said grumpily. “Besides, maybe your girlfriend will be there,” Will said to Darius, giving him shit. “Patrick call you back?” Darius asked Will, who said nothing. “Jealous much?” “Now that we have established our schedule, I would like to know what you found out while you were in Mexico,” JP said to Jake, bringing us back to the topic at hand. “We’re on the brink of a massive war between the Mexican cartels,” Jake said simply. “Why is that a problem?” I asked. I didn’t see how Mexican drug lords killing each other would cause us any heartburn. It seemed like the smart thing to do was to let them fight each other. “If there is a war, it will engulf much of Mexico and will seriously harm many innocent civilians,” Jake predicted. “There was a CIA report done on this a few years ago that suggested such a war could possibly destabilize the Mexican government.” “I cannot imagine that a conflagration on that level would not spill over into the United States,” JP noted. “That was also part of the report,” Jake said. The concept of Mexico as a failed and lawless state was terrifying. “That seems like a good enough reason to be concerned,” I said, letting go of my original attitude of avoiding involvement. “Lord Preston flew in yesterday to see if he could stop things before they get out of hand,” Jake said, dropping that on us. There was a lot to digest in that statement, but it mostly just raised more questions. “Why would Lord Preston be in Mexico trying to stop things before they get out of hand?” JP asked. It was disturbing to see that this had even confused him. “He is apparently well known in the Capetown underworld as the man who unified the gangs there, and brought peace to those organizations,” Jake said. “Our English peer is one of the South African cartel kingpins, if not the kingpin.” “We suspected he was involved in some sort of disreputable business, but controlling drug cartels was a bit beyond my radar,” Stef said. “His extracurricular activities have been well concealed, evidently,” I observed drily. “His nickname is ‘The Shadow’ because of how stealthy he is,” Jake said. “He lives as an expatriate British peer, mingling with the upper crust in Johannesburg, but when he goes to Capetown, he’s like a Mafia Don.” “That is an impressive balancing act,” Stef noted. My initial impression of Lord Preston as bumbling British peer, much as he’d seemed at Alex and Mary Ellen’s wedding, was fast falling apart. For him to live a dual life like that, he had to be pretty clever and he probably also had to be a pretty accomplished actor. “I agree,” I said, putting my thoughts to words. “What is he supposed to accomplish in Mexico?” “The Ortegas are bringing him in to meet with all of the heads of the various cartels down there,” Jake said. “His job is to negotiate some sort of deal where they divide up the turf. The alternative is to fight a battle over who has what regions or lines of business. That’s expensive and dangerous.” “This is reminiscent of the battles with the Mafia here in the US,” JP noted. “It works pretty much the same way,” Jake agreed, “I don’t think the Ortegas want to work out a genuine peace.” “Why not?” I asked, not following him. “The biggest opposing cartel is the Rubio family, run by Stef’s friend,” Jake said. “They’ve been watching the Ortegas expand, and they think this is a power grab.” “I am not quite sure I would classify Joaquin as a friend,” Stef said, even though he probably was. Stef was obviously annoyed at being lumped into this thing. “Regardless, I am wondering how this could be a power grab?” “The man you heard me with the other night was able to enlighten me,” Jake said with a wry grin. It was funny how after our conversation last night, and our make-out session, now I was jealous when I thought about it. “According to him, the Ortega’s plan is to negotiate an arrangement that is especially generous to the weaker cartels, which will win their loyalty and support. Then, after the deal is worked out, they plan to absorb those other cartels, either through friendly or unfriendly means.” “So that means that after they do that, they’ll be much more powerful than they are now,” I noted. “That’s correct,” Jake agreed. “Only at that point, they’ll be so strong, they’ll simply crush anyone, including the Rubios, who stand in their way.” “How will the Rubios react to this?” JP asked. “They’ll figure out the game soon enough,” Jake said with a shrug. “If not, they’ll find themselves pretty embattled.” “I wonder if we should warn them,” Stef mused. “No,” I insisted, a bit too strongly. “We have to keep our distance, as much as possible, from this conflict.” “I do not know if that is possible,” Stef said. “I think it would be a huge mistake for us to be seen as taking sides in whatever happens with these drug cartels,” JP said, backing me up. “Until I can get rid of those border properties, we are in a situation where we are involved,” Stef said. We all seemed to realize what a smoking time bomb Buzz had left us. “I have a potential solution, but I may need your assistance,” Stef said to Jake. “What is your solution?” I asked. “Buzz’s estate will owe a significant amount of estate taxes to the Federal government, and those are payable in cash,” Stef said. “I am working to convince the government to accept those properties as partial payment.” “That is quite clever,” JP said, smiling at Stef. The rest of the crowd looked confused by this discussion, so I decided to clarify things. “If we sell the properties, we could cause more problems with either the new buyers or with the Ortegas, who will be mad that we didn’t give them to Maria,” I explained. “But if the Federal government demands them as part of the estate taxes due, there is little anyone can complain about.” Everyone nodded, and I had to agree with JP; it was a very clever solution. “So how can I help?” Jake asked. “The primary problem is convincing the Feds to agree to the deal,” Stef said. “I have enlisted the help of Buck Dalby, but anyone else you know who can help influence that decision would be useful.” “I’ll make some calls,” Jake promised. “So I don’t get why Lord Preston would be involved in this deal,” Will said. “It doesn’t sound like it’s going anywhere. Why’s he wasting his time?” “I don’t know,” Jake admitted. “At first, it seemed obvious, that he’d benefit by being involved in this whole consolidated cartel.” “Maybe he is planning to run it,” I suggested. “I’d have to believe the Mexican drug trade is considerably more lucrative than those in South Africa.” “Maybe he is,” Jake said, “but I think that’s unlikely. He’s largely being billed as a mediator, not a new CEO. They’re billing him as this superman who can develop the ultimate deal and make everyone happy.” “He’s already in Mexico?” I asked, since I’d forgotten that important fact. “He is,” Jake said, confirming what he’d already told us. He got really nervous when he said that. “What?” I prompted. “Lord Preston is playing with fire,” Jake said. “I can’t see how he can set up this meeting and survive it if things don’t go well.” “So he could be walking into a death trap?” JP asked. “That was my read on it, as well as that of my friends I talked to,” Jake said. I wasn’t willing to buy into that theory, but I kept my mouth shut to hear their points. If Lord Preston had indeed managed to pull of his amazing dual life in South Africa, he wasn’t likely to be oblivious to the threats these cartels presented. “Should we try and warn him off?” JP asked. “No,” Will said emphatically. “That man is not our friend.” “Yet he is Alex’s father, and the son of the Duke of Suffolk,” JP responded. “And they are our friends.” “Alright, if that’s the case, then they should also be partially on the hook for the crap things Lord Preston did this summer,” Will said. “That’s the deal. Lord Preston and Elizabeth Danfield worked pretty hard to fuck up my life, JJ’s life, and Zach’s life, and they walked away totally unharmed. We didn’t blame the Duke of Suffolk or Alex for that.” JP didn’t like that, but he didn’t want to argue about it. “I will ponder your words.” “Thank you,” Will said. “And then what will you do?” “That depends on where my pondering leads me,” JP said in particularly haughty way. I wanted to laugh at how he was stumbling right into a battle with Will, something that I usually ended up doing in these situations. “I want you to remember that we all agreed that this whole deal was based on collective decision making,” Will insisted. “There is nothing wrong with my memory,” JP snapped. Stef and I exchanged knowing looks, even as we tried not to laugh. “So based on what we know now, who thinks we should directly or indirectly warn Lord Preston he may be walking into an ambush?” Will asked the group. “I vote no.” “No,” JJ said insistently. “Nope,” Darius said, chiming in to support his brothers. “I do not see any reason to extend any assistance to Lord Preston,” Stef said. “Neither do I,” I said. “And I would further note that we were unwilling to get involved to warn the Rubios, and those same reasons should preclude us from helping Lord Preston,” Stef added. “That means you’re not allowed to be a snob, just because Lord Preston is a marquess,” Darius joked, only what he said was only too true. JP looked at all of us in annoyance, but there was no way I was going to sanction some bizarre notion of aristocratic kindness only to have Lord Preston rise up and cause us problems in the future. “I will still ponder the situation, but I will do nothing without coming up with a reason good enough to change your minds,” he said, gallantly retreating. “Thank you,” Will said. “I wonder if Alex and the Duke know that Lord Preston is a drug lord?” I asked the group. “We will have to ask them that when we see them on Saturday,” JP said. “Indeed we will,” Stef said. That was sure to be an interesting conversation. After that, we all went out to lunch at the pub near the condo, and then we had the afternoon to do our own things, which for most of us meant taking a nap. September 11, 2003 The Ritz Carlton, Battery Park New York, NY Will This event was being held in a big hotel ballroom just like last time, only tonight we were at the Ritz Carlton in Battery Park. It was a cool hotel, mostly because it was new, and because it was so close to the condo. And just like last time, we were all hanging out in the pre-assembly area, drinking and talking. The crowd here was significantly different than last weekend, though. Then it had largely been the mavens of the fashion industry, but tonight it was a much broader group. I noticed Mayor Bloomberg talking to some people, and wasn’t surprised to see Andrew Cuomo here as well. Darius had been flirting with one of his daughters earlier. Of course, Bellona Carter was also in attendance, only she was lording it over the fashion subset of this group instead of being the Queen of the whole thing. I watched as Grand and Stef effortlessly worked their way through the crowd, talking to people as if they lived here. I looked at my phone, noticing that I had a message, so I moved away from the bar to a quieter place to listen to it. I found a corner that was pretty convenient, one that gave me a view of the whole area. I played the message and smiled when I heard Patrick’s voice. “Hey Will, sorry I didn’t call you earlier. I’m planning to be at that event tonight, so I’ll see you there. Maybe we can hang out after that.” I smiled at my phone, and then frowned when I noticed that there was another number that was conspicuously absent. I hadn’t talked to Zach since Sunday. I’d put off calling him because I took Matt and Stef’s advice to heart and decided not to chase after him, but in reality, I’d decided that was a pretty low risk strategy. I’d figured there was no way he wouldn’t at least call me on 9-11. As the guy who had helped me through that nightmare, he’d know what a tough day this was for me. I was totally confident that he still loved me and cared about me enough to worry about how I was doing, and I was absolutely sure he’d reach out to me. Only he hadn’t. I sighed and put my phone away, deciding that it was still early in California, and using that as an excuse to pretend he’d call me later to check up on me. I saw my father at the bar, and stared at him long enough that he must have felt my eyes on him. He got his drink and strolled over to my corner. “You found a nice place to hide.” “I’m not hiding, I’m observing,” I joked. “You seen Darius lately?” he asked. “He was hanging around with JJ and Bellona, but I haven’t seen him for a little bit,” I said, wondering where he was. “Where’s Jake?” “He went ahead and flew down to DC, to see if he could help Stef dump that land on the border,” Dad said. “You were gone for a while last night,” I teased. “I just went to welcome Jake to New York. We talked, then made out for a while,” he said. “How was it?” I asked, totally excited for him. “Hot,” he answered, cracking me up. “No doubt,” I said. “But you didn’t fuck him?” “No,” he said, and seemed confused. “I’ll fill you in on why when we fly down to Goodwell.” Whatever happened with Jake freaked him out a bit, and he obviously didn’t want to talk about it. I resolved not to be an asshole and hound him about it, especially here, and especially on 9-11. “Cool,” I said, then used my own issues to distract him. “Zach didn’t call me yet.” “It’s still early in California,” he said, using my same reasoning. I was distracted from arguing about that when I saw Darius at the bar. He was looking around in a way that I knew for him was almost frantic, but would look normal to anyone else. As soon as he spotted Dad and me, he all but charged over to our corner. “I found out what the plan is for tonight,” he said. He was really pissed off, so much that his eyes were almost shooting fire, and his nose was flaring not unlike Matt’s did when he was mad, only Darius had to be a lot more pissed off for his nose to flare out than Matt did. “What?” I asked calmly, trying to get him to settle down a bit. “Did you know about this?” he asked Dad. “About what?” Dad asked, and seemed genuinely confused. “They’re going to recognize us for escaping from the tower,” Darius snapped. “They’re going to give us keys to the city.” “What?” I asked, totally stunned. “That’s quite an honor,” Dad said, then withered under truly evil looks from Darius and me. “I don’t want to relive that fucking day, and I sure as fuck don’t want to relive it in front of cameras, reporters, and politicians,” Darius said, much too loudly. “Shut the fuck up,” I snapped. He just glared at me. “Do not make a scene.” “You’re saying this?” he demanded, like I was constantly making an ass of myself at fancy balls. “I’m saying this,” I said, even as my mind whirled with what he said. “I’m so out of here,” Darius said, and made to leave. I grabbed his arm to stop him, and when he turned around to face me, he instinctively cocked his fist. “You can’t do that without causing big problems,” Dad snapped, using his full power posture, one that probably saved me from taking a fist in my stomach. “You still planning to go into the Navy?” “Yeah,” Darius said, as if Dad were stating the obvious. “Then you can’t go running out of here and embarrassing a bunch of powerful politicians,” Dad said logically. “You really think Mayor Bloomberg is gonna track me down and cause me problems for bailing on this party?” Darius demanded. “He’ll know that you were here, and then when they announce the award, and only Will goes up to get it, he’ll know you left,” Dad said. “That’s the kind of thing that can bite you in the ass later on.” “Fuck,” Darius said, with resignation. I wasn’t convinced it would really be that big of a problem, but running away wasn’t the right thing to do, so I didn’t argue about it. “So you’re OK with this?” he demanded of me. “It’s not my first choice, but if that’s what they have planned, I’ll go with the flow,” I said. It was almost surreal that Darius was freaking out, kind of like I had been known to do a few times, while I was pretty relaxed about things. “Remember my 40th birthday,” Dad said to us. “I got to the airport, all pissed off, and was determined to just go back to work. If I’d have done that, I’d have completely fucked up your plans.” “You’re the only guy I know who gets pissed off by a good blow job,” I teased him, reminding him about his ride to the airport. He ignored me. “And then that night, when it was time for me to go downstairs, I thought briefly about stalling, but I knew that you guys had gone to a lot of trouble to set that up for me, and I didn’t want to be a dick and ruin it, or embarrass you,” he said, ignoring my taunt. “So?” Darius said. “If you do that, if you bail on the Mayor and these people, that’s what you’re doing. They want to honor you for your bravery, and if you just skip out on them, you make them look like asses,” Dad explained. “Besides, no way you can’t get laid after they give you the key to the city,” I joked. “I already got that covered,” Darius said, then got more thoughtful as he thought of his date. “I don’t think Bellona would appreciate me doing that either.” “Probably not,” Dad said. It was annoying that only when he factored in Bellona’s reaction did Darius seem to fully realize how stuck we were. “Fine, I’ll do it, but only if you do the talking,” he said to me. He usually pawned that off on me, because he hated talking to crowds like this. “I can do that,” I said, even as my mind began to whirl with a new idea. “I better get back to the party,” he said, and walked off at a much more deliberate pace than that which he’d used to get here. “Did he work things out with JJ?” Dad asked. I laughed. “Yeah. They did it in about seven words.” “I’m glad,” he said. “So what are you planning?” “What do you mean?” He rolled his eyes at me. “You’re working on something. What are you planning to say?” It was irritating that he could read me so well these days. It was so much easier to hide things from him when he was fucked up. “We’re having the talent show next weekend, and that’s going to end up being a big tribute to Grand,” I said, confiding in him. “That’s a nice thing to do,” he said approvingly. “Thanks, but I’ve been worried that it would upset Stef. It may make him think we’re neglecting him when we pay total attention to Grand,” I told him. It was cool that he didn’t give me a bunch of bullshit arguments, but recognized the situation and how sensitive Stef could be about these things. “That could happen,” he agreed nervously. “I wanted to include him in the talent show celebration, to make it a joint deal for him and Grand, but I got vetoed. It won’t really work,” I said. “Instead, I’ve tried to get him all involved in our plans, so it’s his deal too.” “That’s a good idea,” Dad said, smiling at me. “Thanks, but we still haven’t done anything for Stef,” I said. “So tonight, when I get to talk, I’ll make sure I do that.” “I’m sure he’d appreciate that,” Dad said, even as he thought about it. “This is more his crowd,” I added. “He’s almost as popular here as he is in LA,” Dad noted. It was amazing what billions of dollars would do for your image. I saw Patrick walk up to the bar, and noted that he was alone. “I’ll see you later,” I said, and strode purposely away from Dad toward Patrick. He saw me when I was about ten feet away from him, and it was awesome that at huge smile seemed to erupt on his face. “Hey Will!” he said, and gave me a big man-hug to make us look like bros. “It is so good to see you!” I told him honestly. “You here solo?” “I am, but I’m not real popular at home right now,” he grimaced. “You’re popular here,” I flirted. “I was staying at our condo, but it’s a little crowded. I was thinking about getting a room here.” “Oh yeah?” he asked, raising his eyebrow suggestively. “I’d hate to be here alone, though,” I said. “Maybe you could keep me company?” “I can do that,” he said. “I understand I’m sitting at your table tonight.” “Don’t get into a fight with Darius,” I teased. “I’ll be back.” I left him and went to the front desk and splurged for the biggest suite they had available. The dude working at the front desk was stunningly slow, so by the time I got a couple of keys and went back to the gala, I discovered that pretty much everyone had gone into the ballroom and taken their seats. I managed to find my table, and found myself sandwiched in between Dad and Patrick, while Stef was on Patrick’s other side. Those two were deep in conversation, so I talked to Dad. “I decided to stay here tonight, so you have your own room.” “I wonder why,” he said sarcastically, even as he looked beyond me at Patrick. “Damn, you have good taste in men.” “So do you,” I reminded him. Dinner conversation was pretty fun and lively, and there was the added dimension of all of us trying not to laugh our asses off at Darius working his moves on Bellona. After dinner was pretty much over, the mayor walked up to the stage and smiled out at the audience for a few seconds, then got somber and started speaking. “We are here tonight to remember one of the darkest days in the history of our city, an event that tore at our fabric, but at the same time brought us closer together.” He rambled on with that theme for a while, and paused to recognize some of the other dignitaries who were there. “I’ve been fortunate enough to honor many of our citizens who were true heroes on that day, but tonight I have an opportunity to recognize two young men, one who wasn’t quite 15 at the time, who braved the fires and heat of the South Tower to fight their way out of that burning pyre, and they did it while carrying their baby sister with them.” He read off our names, and there was an aide there to shepherd Darius and me up onto the stage even as the mayor expanded on what we’d been through, reading one of the more flowery descriptions that had been published. His words pierced through my shields as he made me relive that horrible day, and while both Darius and I may have seemed calm and stoic as we stood there listening to our tale, the tears running out of our eyes gave away how awful this was. I looked at him and we connected with our eyes, drawing strength from each other, and blocking out the mayor’s voice. In fact, we’d zoned out enough that I was almost surprised when he handed us these nice velvet boxes with a gold key in each one. The key was pretty cool. It was about five inches long, and was engraved with the words “Facsimile of key made in 1812 for the door of City Hall, New York.” The keys featured the New York City seal and the mayor’s name on their shafts. I’d been so absorbed in my ordeal that I’d almost forgotten what I was planning to say. There was a pregnant pause, but a look from Darius spurred me into action. “Thank you, Your Honor, for the kind words you said, and for these keys to the city. That day was the worst day of our lives,” I said, nodding to Darius. “The bravery you give us credit for, though, was really just us following the example of a man who has been a guiding force in our lives, our grandfather, Stefan Schluter.” I paused and stretched my arm out, pointing at Stef, until he finally stood up, even as he pretended to be reluctant to do so. The crowd gave him a huge ovation. “Stef taught us to look for opportunities, and when we find them, to seize them,” I said. “That was the thing that propelled us to make the initial decision to start going down those stairs. He also instilled in us the importance of trusting our instincts, and that’s the thing that kept us going down even when others were going up, and that’s the thing that gave us the power to fight through the heat and the smoke around the 80th floor. So we thank you for this honor, but we in turn have to thank our grandfather, Stefan Schluter, for teaching us to take advantages of opportunities and to trust our instincts. His training, his example, is the reason we’re standing here today. With your permission, we’d like it if he could join us on this stage.” “With pleasure,” the mayor said. Stef walked up onto the stage to a standing ovation, while the mayor smiled at him and shook his hand. “Stefan Schluter, the man who is currently four slots ahead of me on the Forbes 400 list,” he joked, getting a laugh from everyone. “When this year’s rankings come out, we will have to see if you have widened or narrowed the gap this year,” Stef responded. He didn’t say anything else, he just turned and gave Darius and me each a huge hug. After that, we walked back to our table, even as the crowd clapped for us. “Thank you both for that wonderful tribute,” Stef said, and was so emotional he was crying. “It was true,” Darius said, and even though I’d exaggerated quite a bit, I nodded in agreement. I was hoping that beyond this venue, our tribute to Stef would help him decide not to hate me.
  9. Alright Californios, where would Will, JJ, and Darius hang out in 2000, noting that they live in Malibu? What about John and Marie, in Paly?
  10. California Culture: Circa 2000

    The running back was Marshal Faulk. You’ll find references to him in The Streak.
  11. Chapter 53

    Seems Jake got lucky. At least with that.
  12. Chapter 46

    No shit! And by the way, where have you been?!?! So good to see you around again!
  13. California Culture: Circa 2000

    NOT a Kurt Warner fan. He's one of those religious freaks.
  14. Chapter 53

    September 10, 2003 Tribeca, NY JJ “It is very late,” Jacinta said in her stunted English. We were standing by the door, waiting for our group to arrive, and her comment made me glance at the clock on the wall, noting it was approaching midnight. “It is,” I said. I rambled on to hide how nervous I was. I had no idea what kind of attitude I’d get from these people, who had all but scorched me last weekend. I hadn’t talked to my brothers, I’d only talked to my father and Stef, and both of them were circumspect at best. “They couldn’t leave until around 3pm, and then they had a five hour flight, plus the three hour time change.” “That is a long day,” she said thoughtfully, which didn’t surprise me. She seemed like a nice person. “It has been for us as well,” I said. “Thank you so much for helping me get everything together.” She’d worked like a demon, and so had I, which was pretty unusual for me, but I’d used the activity to avoid thinking about Carullo. He’d come back late last night and left early this morning, and I only knew that because Jacinta told me. “You are welcome,” she said, smiling and showing off her horribly crooked teeth. I had to fight to keep my emotions in check, since I’d made the mistake of thinking about Carullo. I’d felt so lonely last night without him there, and I was consumed with jealousy at the thought of him out there, fucking Luka, while I was here, all by myself. And that was the other big motive behind my attempt to throw out the red carpet for my relatives. With Carullo gone, I really was alone. I had no one, no one except my family. I’d pushed them a little too far, and now they were ready to disown me. What if they did that? What if they wrote me completely off? I’d be alone, completely alone. The only good news was that I had enough money in trusts that I wouldn’t be poor, or did I? Could they mess with that? Could I end up alone and poor? That was horrifying. I glanced around the room, as if to find something out of place that would upset the probing eyes of my relatives, and would cause them to damn me to a life of penury, where I’d have to get up every day and go to work. I’d probably have a little desk in some hideous cubicle, with loud and odorous people all around me. I cringed, and would have fled to the restroom to compose myself, but I heard noises outside the door, and braced myself for everyone’s arrival. The door opened and Stef came in first, of course, followed by Grand, my father, and my brothers. “Welcome to New York!” I said enthusiastically, even as I gave him a warm hug. “This is Jacinta.” “Nice to meet you,” Stef said to her, then focused on me. “It is so good to see you. And how have you been?” I’d been worried about being poor and alone, but Stef came in with his typical supportive and loving attitude, and that helped calm me down. “Doing well,” I lied. I greeted Grand and my father, exchanging pleasantries, while I watched Will and Darius from the corner of my eye. Will greeted Jacinta in Spanish and they chattered away happily. It was annoying that he was so much better at languages than me, and that he seemed to be able to genuinely charm and engage people whereas I had to work hard to be even remotely likeable. Darius stood in the background with his severe look, and only after everyone else had filed through did he bother to talk to me. “Hey,” he said casually. Will broke away from his evidently riveting conversation with Jacinta and nodded at me, and then I led them all into the great room. “We’ve managed to set up beds for everyone,” I said proudly. “You guys are in your normal rooms,” I said to Grand, Stef, and Dad. They tended to occupy the same bedroom when they were here. “Carullo is out of town for the weekend, so I put you guys in his room,” I said to Will and Darius. “Where’s Carullo?” Will asked suspiciously, as if I’d driven him away. “He went camping and fishing in Vermont for the weekend,” I said, and through some miracle I’d managed to keep my voice even and hide how much that bothered me. “I put an extra bed in there so you guys didn’t have to sleep together.” “Keeps me from getting perved on,” Darius said, giving Will a fake dirty look. “You so don’t meet my standards,” Will shot back. “I’ve got a place to stay, anyway,” Darius said. “I’ll meet you guys back here in the morning.” “And where are you staying?” Grand asked. It was a good thing he posed the question, since Darius probably would have told the rest of us to fuck off if we’d pried. “Made a call after our conversation on the plane,” he said. He grabbed his backpack. “See you.” We all watched, amazed, as he strolled out of the condo. “When is Jake getting here?” Will asked Dad. “He can have the spare bed in my room.” “He should be here shortly,” Dad said frostily. Will just snickered at him. “He can take my room, and I’ll sleep in Carullo’s with you.” “That is right,” Stef said in his mischievous tone. “You have spent the night there before, as I recall.” “I have,” Dad said, now irritated. Fortunately his irritation was more pronounced than mine, so I got off the hook of getting grilled as to why that would bother me. “I think I’ll go unpack.” “That is a good idea, and I will follow your lead,” Grand said. “Only when I am done with that, I am going to bed.” “We will see you all in the morning,” Stef said. They left, leaving Will and me standing there just looking at each other. I swallowed hard, knowing I’d have to take the plunge and apologize. God, I hated that. “I’m sorry I’ve been such a dick lately.” “You know, I’ve been willing to be your whipping boy up to a point, but I’m done with that shit now,” he said in a very nasty way. “And don’t you ever, ever think, for one minute, I’m going to put up with you giving Maddy shit.” “I said I was sorry,” I snapped. I mean, I’d all but groveled. This was where he was supposed to let up on me. “I appreciate that, but I want to know that you got what I said,” he demanded. “I’ll try to do better, and if I fuck up, I’ll make sure that it’s you I treat like shit,” I said with a smile. He laughed. “I can work with that. I’m sorry we were such assholes last weekend.” Somehow, having him apologize too made everything better. “It’s whatever. Let’s put all this shit behind us.” “I can do that,” Will said. “So what’s with you and Carullo?” I forgot how annoying he could be, forcing his nose into my business, but at the same time, he was probably one of the few people I could talk to about this. “We hooked up,” I said casually, like it was no big deal. “How was it?” “Amazing,” I said, and couldn’t help smiling. “He’s a fucking animal.” “I told you he would rock your world,” Will said with a knowing grin. “You were right,” I said. I told him all about my week, and how we’d spent every night together. “So things are good?” he asked suspiciously. It was like he smelled blood. “Yeah.” “So who’d he go to Vermont with?” It was annoying that he seemed to know all the wrong questions to ask. “He took me around the city on Sunday, and we met this dude named Luka. He seemed like a nice enough guy. Worked as a waiter at this pretty nice Italian restaurant. Carullo went to Vermont with him this weekend.” “Why does that bother you?” he asked, which was irritating, since I’d tried really hard to lay things out there in a factual and casual way, but he’d seen through that and got that this was bugging me. “Because we were doing great together, and suddenly this other dude is in the picture,” I said. “Did he tell you he’d be exclusive, just with you?” Will asked pointedly. “No,” I said, knowing that I was going to end up looking like an ass. “He told me he couldn’t be in a relationship.” “Did he say why?” “No,” I said. “I never asked him about that.” “It’s kind of raw to be pissed at him for going out with someone else when he told you that he couldn’t be in a relationship with you,” he said, pronouncing judgment in Carullo’s favor, just like I was afraid he’d do. “Yeah, but it seemed like we were doing so well,” I said, almost a whine. “Alright, I can see why that would freak you out, but you have to talk to him about it.” I wondered if Darius were here if he’d give me the same advice. He wasn’t nearly as big on talking as Will was. “I don’t want to give him the third degree,” I objected, which wasn’t true at all. I just didn’t want to risk be rejected again. “It is not giving him the third degree to ask a guy who’s fucking you why he can’t date you,” he said. “If it’s because he’s not into you, there’s not much you can do about that.” “That’s what I’m afraid of,” I said, accidentally letting that slip out. Instead of giving me shit, he gave me a genuinely sympathetic look. “I could be wrong, but I’m betting it’s something else,” he said. “What?” I demanded. “Dude, he lost his boyfriend two years ago. He was all in on that relationship,” Will reminded me. “Maybe he doesn’t want to risk it again.” “You’re telling me he may be more fucked up than I am?” I asked, sort of joking. “I’m not sure that’s possible,” he joked back, then got serious again. “He seems tough on the outside, but he’s not so tough inside.” “I was kind of a dick to him when I found out about the weekend thing,” I admitted, then told him about our dinner. “You fucked that up,” he said, getting a dirty look from me in return. “So how do I fix it?” I asked. He thought about it for a few seconds. “Call him. He probably won’t answer, but that’s fine. Leave him a message telling him that you’re sorry about what happened, and that you hope he really enjoys his weekend. Tell him you’re looking forward to seeing him when he gets back. And keep it very cheerful and upbeat.” “Won’t me calling him fuck up his romantic weekend?” I asked acidly. “No, it will let him know that he can come home on Sunday night to a pleasant place without a lot of bullshit,” he said, just as coldly. “Then when you guys are cool again, ask him why he can’t be in a relationship.” I thought about what he said, and it made sense. “Thanks,” I said, and I was sincere enough that he actually smiled at me. “Glad I could help,” he said. We were interrupted by a knock on the door. Will and I both got up and went to answer it, and found this amazingly handsome guy there. “Hey!” Will said, and gave him a welcoming hug. “This is my brother, JJ. JJ, this is Jake Pike.” “Nice to meet you,” I said, and I was proud of myself for not stuttering in front of this guy who was damn near a god he looked so good. “Nice to meet you too,” he said, and shook my hand. “JJ made sure you had your own room, but if you want to share with me, you can,” Will said, flirting with him in his whorish way. “I’m not seeing that,” Jake said flatly. It was stunning that his blatant rejection didn’t bother Will at all. “I’m starting to not believe you’re gay,” Will said. “Believe it,” Jake said, and winked at Will. “Everyone went to bed not too long ago,” I told Jake, trying to keep Will from throwing himself at this guy. “That’s fine,” he said. “I’ll just talk to them in the morning.” “I’ll tell my dad you’re here,” Will said. “He’s welcome to come say hello if he’s still up,” Jake said. Will smirked at him, which actually made Jake look slightly embarrassed. “Your room is this way,” I said, and led him down the hall. He walked in and smiled. “This is a lot nicer than the places I’ve been staying,” he told me. “Thanks.” “My pleasure,” I said, and felt myself blushing. I took that opportunity to leave, and to escape back to my room and make the phone call Will told me to make. Just like he’d predicted, Carullo didn’t answer his phone. He was probably in the middle of fucking that Luka dude. I fought down my jealous demons enough to leave a relatively chipper message, at least for me, then went to bed where I tossed and turned for a long time while I tortured myself by thinking about Carullo and Luka. September 11, 2003 Tribeca, NY Brad I’d heard the clock donging out twelve times almost as soon as I’d walked into this room, reminding me that it was midnight, and it was now September 11. I suddenly felt dirty, and attributed that to a long day of traveling, so I’d decided to take a shower. That had been refreshing, so much so that it had woken me up. I was lying on Carullo’s bed wearing my boxers, trying to decide what to do to make myself tired enough to go to sleep. Will would probably be here soon enough, and he’d want to go to bed. I sighed and put on a T-shirt and some sweat pants, and started going through my briefcase to find things I could take out into the family room to work on. I knew that I had to have something to occupy my mind, otherwise I’d let myself go back in time to two years ago, and I’d end up staying up all night torturing myself. I’d come so far, and I really did think I’d recovered from losing Robbie, but being here during 9-11 could probably fuck me up. The door opened abruptly, and I was about to get annoyed until I remembered I was sharing the room. “I see you took the big bed,” Will said. Carullo’s bed was queen sized, while the extra bed JJ had put in here was only a twin. “I got here first,” I said, smiling. “I’ll suffer through,” he grumbled, even though I could tell from his tone he really didn’t care. “Jake just got here.” “I didn’t think he’d make it in for another hour or so,” I said. “I think I’ll go check up on him.” “It’s quite possible that while you’re gone, I’ll steal your bed,” he said. “I probably won’t be back for a while anyway,” I said, even as I got up and started getting my things together. “You’re that confident he’ll invite you to stay?” Will asked. “No, but I took a shower, and that made me feel better, but it also woke me up, so I’ll probably work on some things until I get tired,” I said. “I think you’d do better trying to sleep with Jake,” he teased. “I thought about it, but he doesn’t want to,” I told Will. I figured that if I told him what was going on, maybe he would quit making annoying innuendos. “Why not?” “He says that when he’s rushed into bed with someone before establishing a friendship, it hasn’t worked out for him,” I told him. “He told me he didn’t want to rush things.” “He must be pretty into you if he’s that worried about going slow and not fucking things up,” Will noted. “Or he’s just trying to politely keep me away from him because he doesn’t want to have sex with me,” I said morosely, letting me guard completely down. Will shook his head emphatically. “That’s not it. I can tell by the way he looks at you.” “Maybe he just needs to get his vision checked, and he’s squinting,” I joked. “I’m serious,” Will said, in that tone, to let me know he wasn’t messing around. “He looks at you like he wants you. That’s not the issue.” “I guess we’ll see,” I said, and headed for the door. “Maybe this is a time when you can’t be the alpha male,” he said. I almost got annoyed all over again, thinking he was teasing me, referring to my ‘training’ on how to act at gay bars, but his expression told me he was still being serious. “Maybe he wants to set the pace.” “Maybe you’re right,” I said pensively. “Regardless, it won’t hurt for me to be polite and stop in to welcome him to New York.” “Just don’t pin him down and force him to have sex with you,” he teased. “What if that’s what he’s into?” I asked, joking back. “Then you should pin him down and fuck him,” Will said thoughtfully, cracking me up. “Did you talk to JJ?” He nodded. “He apologized, I drilled him on why it was important not to be a dick to Maddy and Carullo, among others, and then told him I was sorry we were such dicks last weekend. Now we’re good.” “It almost seems too easy,” I said skeptically. “The hard part is getting him to apologize in the first place,” Will said. “After that, it’s easy.” “Makes sense,” I said. “I still have to have a talk with him about seeing a shrink.” “If you want me to talk to him, let me know,” he said. I guess now that they’d had their meeting of the minds, dealing with JJ wasn’t such a nightmare for him. “I’ll think about it,” I said, then left him alone. I headed down the hall to the room I usually slept in and knocked softly. “Who is it?” I heard Jake ask. I thought that was funny, as if there was someone here he wouldn’t let come in. “Brad,” I said. I expected him to tell me to come in, but I didn’t hear anything. That was a little freaky, enough to make me wonder if I should just leave, until the door opened. “Sorry,” he said with a smile. “Just got out of the shower and wanted to toss some boxers on.” I couldn’t help looking at his amazing body. I ran my eyes up and down his torso, taking in his smooth chest with its accentuated pectoral muscles, at his six-pack abs that led to noticeable cum gutters, and then down to his legs, which were thinner and muscular. “Like what you see?” he asked, being cocky. “So much that I risked a smart ass comment to stare at you,” I said. He chuckled. “Come on in.” I followed him into the room and we both sat on the bed. “I had a pretty eventful trip.” “Yeah, I heard,” I joked, referring to hearing him getting fucked. “I’m sorry about that,” he said. “Why would you be sorry about that?” I asked. “You can be with whoever you want.” He shrugged. “I’d probably be a little jealous if I called you and ended up hearing you grunting and moaning while you were fucking someone.” That was really surprising, since he’d kept such a distance between us. “You would?” I asked, and I truly didn’t believe him. “A little bit, yeah,” he said. “You weren’t?” “Not really,” I said, and it was funny that he seemed disappointed that I didn’t have that reaction. “I actually thought it was hot.” “Maybe that means I’m more into you than you’re into me,” he said in his playful way. “Duh,” I said, sounding like Will, and making both of us chuckle. Only then we stopped laughing, and the silence was kind of uncomfortable. “Look, you know I find you attractive, and not just for your amazing body and your stunning looks.” “Thanks,” he said. “I find you attractive too.” “It would suck if you didn’t,” I said with a smile. “Then I’d have to deal with all kinds of insecurity attacks.” “That’s probably more my deal,” he said. “I don’t get that. You have the personality, the charm, and the looks… they basically are like a magnet, drawing in anyone who’s attracted to a man.” We were having this conversation, and I was pretty focused on it, so I was really shocked when he moved his face forward quickly, and even more shocked when I felt his lips on mine. I put my arms around him, pulling him closer, even as our mouths began to move in sync. I’d been worried, almost paranoid, that I’d have an experience like I had with Ben the Carpenter, and that Jake would end up being a shitty kisser. It took all of ten seconds of making out with him to realize that wasn’t going to be a problem at all. I finally broke our lip lock and smiled at him. “You are good at that.” “We are,” he agreed. I moved in and started kissing him again. I lay on my back and pulled him on top of me, while I let my hands move across his smooth skin, feeling his hard muscles pulsing underneath. My hands moved down his back and slid underneath the elastic in his boxers, grabbing his firm cheeks before running my fingers down his crack. I felt him moan in my mouth as my fingers slid across his hole, then he seemed to freak out a little bit. He gently pushed me away, and smiled at the confused look on my face. “We need to talk.” “Now?” I asked, panting. He laughed. “I promise I’ll take care of you.” “So talk,” I said, not a little frustrated. He gave me a slightly annoyed look, and that served to calm me down. He pulled off his boxers and exposed his groin, where he had a nice dick that was plump but not hard. “It doesn’t get much harder than this,” he said, and a tear actually fell out of his eye. “Good thing I’m a top,” I teased, even as I stroked his face in a loving way, but that wasn’t good enough for him. “I’m fine with that. I’m more into you, the person, than your dick.” “It’s a deal killer for most guys,” he said. I could feel the agony in him, the feelings of inadequacy he must experience on a constant basis. No wonder his relationships with Sean and Marc didn’t work. I got now why he wanted to wait for us to sleep together. This was a pretty hard conversation to have with someone you didn’t know very well, and that you didn’t completely trust. “Not for me,” I said. “You say that now…” he started, clueing me in to how his other relationships must have disintegrated. They’d probably said they were fine with it too, only to decide later it wouldn’t work unless his dick was hard. “Not for me,” I reiterated firmly. “Why can’t you…” I began, and then stopped, because I couldn’t think of a good way to ask why he couldn’t get it up. He chuckled a bit at my uncertainty, and then rolled over onto his stomach, showing me his beautiful ass. “See that scar near my tailbone?” I ran my hand across the scar I thought he was referring to. “This one?” “That one,” he confirmed. “I was shot, and suffered nerve damage. That’s why my dick doesn’t work.” It was hard to listen with his ass right in front of me. I let my fingers trail down again, and he turned around and slapped my hand away playfully. “They couldn’t do anything for you?” I asked. “They said I was lucky that I was walking, and that everything else worked,” he said bitterly. “And I guess shit like Viagra won’t help this?” I asked. “It doesn’t work,” he said morosely. “Before I got shot, I was versatile, but I tended to mostly top.” “Now you can’t,” I said, completing his thought. “So is this why you’re too radical for Sean and Marc?” “That’s part of it,” he said. “The other thing is that I bareback. I hate condoms, and have a latex allergy.” “That’s really dangerous,” I said, horrified. His limp dick wasn’t a deal killer, but barebacking was a whole different deal. I was guessing, based on the scene we’d heard in Mexico that he wasn’t just sleeping with guys he was committed to. “Especially if you’re barebacking in an uncommitted relationship.” “And that’s what I do,” he said matter of factly. “I fucked five guys while I was in Mexico.” I got the feeling that he was baiting me, that he was seeing how I’d react, so that just made me more resolved to be calm. “How do you avoid HIV?” I asked. “I’m immune.” “What?” I asked, stunned. “There are some people, not many, who seem to have a built in immunity to HIV,” he said. “I have all this other shit to deal with, but my body tossed me that as a twisted gift.” I’d vaguely remembered hearing something about that, so I knew it was possible, but it still seemed too good to be true. “That’s cool, but a little trippy,” I admitted. He had a strange expression on his face, one that was a combination of sad yet defiant. “Don’t you think it’s reasonable that I may need a little time to ponder this?” “Part of me just expects you to trust me,” he said, showing me the defiant part of his mood. “I do trust you,” I said. “Besides, HIV isn’t the only thing you can catch.” “The other things aren’t deadly, and I get tested monthly. I’ve only gotten something once, amazingly enough, and that was Chlamydia, a few years ago.” He sighed. “If I’m with someone, I’m more careful.” “I get that,” I said. I could see how that would have totally been a deal-killer for either Sean or Marc. “For me, I want to be able to have sex with someone I’m dating and know that I’m not going to walk away with Gonorrhea.” “There’s one more thing,” he said. I looked at him intently. “Sometimes it takes a little bit of work for me to get off.” “You make is sound like it’s not a fun job,” I teased, getting a slight grin. “No, it just means that if a dude is fucking me and his dick isn’t big enough to really pound my prostate, I’m going to have to do something else,” he said. I grinned, knowing that I wouldn’t have that problem, but I was curious about what that ‘something else’ was. “What else do you have to do?” “Usually toys,” he said. “Even tried a fist once, but I didn’t like that much.” That really freaked me out, so much that I couldn’t hide it. I hadn’t thought about that for a long time, and when I did, I always thought of Robbie. Having that raised in my mind on September 11 was too much even for my shields. “I grossed you out,” he said, and looked really sad. “No, you didn’t,” I said, even as I wiped a tear out of my eye. “I told you about my former partner, about Robbie.” “Yeah?” “He was into fisting. You just sparked a memory, and this isn’t the best day for me to think about it,” I said. “I’m sorry,” he said, with genuine sympathy. “So he liked it?” “He liked to do it sometimes,” I said. “It was really intimate. It was something that almost completely tore us apart in college, but then became something that brought us even closer together.” “It’s hard to see getting a fist slammed into your ass as being intimate,” he said. “You were punch fucked?” I asked. He nodded. “There are other ways to do it.” He swallowed hard as he thought about it, making me grin. “Did you like doing it?” “At first, I didn’t. Part of that was because I wasn’t convinced it was a healthy activity for Robbie, since he’d let this one dude use it to all but control him. I was worried that it was like giving a drink to an alcoholic,” I said. “But in the end, I liked it a lot, because I could take him to another world, get him off in a way that no one else could. To do that for someone you love is a major gift.” “It was that good?” he asked, stunned. “It was that good,” I confirmed. He yawned, and then I did. The romantic mood had been broken by our conversation, and I decided it was best to beat a hasty retreat so I could get some time to think about his disclosures. “We’ve got a busy morning tomorrow. I’ll let you get some sleep.” He smiled and nodded. “Sleep well.” I got up and went back to my room, and found that Will had left me the big bed. I thought about Jake, and was pretty excited, pretty confused, and pretty worried, all at the same time. I’d have to check out his immunity deal, but even if that was legit, which is probably was, I wasn’t willing to have unprotected sex with a dude who could give me some other nasty disease.
  15. California Culture: Circa 2000

    What they wrote is probably true, but they did allude to the fact that while St. Louis City is broke, St. Louis County is quite wealthy, so the resources could have been there. I think a lot of the reason it fell apart was the strong feeling against Stan Kroenke that pretty much permeates this part of Missouri. His 'home' is (or was) technically in Columbia, MO, some 120 miles west of St. Louis, so he was initially seen as a local boy. I think the expectation was that he was an "Auggie Busch" kind of guy, who would do what he could for his home state. One of those owners who has civic loyalty and wants to win, and will put up resources to make that happen. Someone who gives a shit about the city his team plays in. He's not like that at all.
  16. Faces for Mark's Stories

    She probably won't really care about Maddy, since she's not her blood granddaughter. Elizabeth is heartless enough to let that matter. With Riley, she'll probably be relaxed, since he's a boy. Now when he gets serious about someone, I suspect that's when things will get more intense. :-)
  17. Black Widow- Music Recommendations

    I would not have expected a Heart-themed selection, but I like it.
  18. Chapter 52

    I loved this one. Lmao. Which “outsider” hasn’t felt that way, at some point, when dealing with this family.
  19. Faces for Mark's Stories

    When Maddy is 12, Will will be in his mid-20s. I think he'd cope with a punk/emo/rebellious Maddy just fine. Cody, Wade, and Matt, on the other hand...
  20. Black Widow (Story Discussion)

    Hopefully I addressed another reason for this in Chapter 52. Darius is usually so perceptive.
  21. Black Widow- Music Recommendations

    Did your job for you on that chapter. :-)
  22. Northern Exposure: General Discussion

    Such excellent points. I'd also point out that the number of aristocratic admirals was relatively small, especially at this point. From what I've read, the Royal Navy became a popular venue for the aristocracy during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, so even if there were an influx, those men wouldn't have been promoted to flag rank.
  23. California Culture: Circa 2000

    I am a Rams fan, and while it's sad that they're not in St. Louis anymore, I personally feel they belong in LA, so I'm good with it.
  24. Chapter 9

    Or at least he's navigated them for now.
  25. Chapter 52

    September 9, 2003 Escorial, CA Brad I wasn’t looking at JP or Stef, nor was I looking at the beautiful décor in JP’s office: the wood-paneled walls, the oak floors, and the Persian carpet that may or may not have been the same one that was here last year. My eyes may have been scanning those people and things, but my mind was firmly locked on the problem before us. I had known fear in my life, but never on this level. We had dabbled in the gangster world before, but only on a peripheral level, one where we could do a favor or solve a problem, but if we got involved in a war between opposing cartels, none of us was safe. I zoned out as Stef recounted the details of his conversation with Maria Ortega Dalby to JP, letting my mind fully devolve into a state of panic and paranoia. “So Maria Dalby called you and told you someone had kidnapped Jake?” JP asked Stef for clarity. It was one of the more amazing experiences I’d had, in that just his calm, rational voice pulled my head straight out of my ass and back into this meeting. “That is her allegation,” Stef said. “And she was willing to help get him released in exchange for the transfer of those properties along the border?” JP asked. “That was her proposition,” Stef confirmed. “Do we know if Jake is being held somewhere against his will?” JP asked. That was the simplest of questions, but the fact that neither Stef nor I had bothered to confirm this showed just how frazzled both of us were. Unfortunately, that simple question, pointing out our obvious error, put both of us into incredibly bad moods. “No,” I said, getting a look of disapproval from JP. “Let’s call him.” Using JP’s conference phone, I dialed the number Jake had given me, the one that linked to the phone he was using in Mexico. It rang eight times, and just as I was about to give up and end the call, I heard his voice. “Can I call you back?” He sounded like he was out of breath. “Are you being held somewhere against your will?” JP asked tersely. “No,” Jake said, and sounded confused by that. We heard a grunt in the background, one that sounded sexual in nature, while Jake let out a slight moan. “Then you can call us back as soon as you can,” JP said, and we ended the call. “He sounded busy,” Stef said, even as he looked at me and raised an eyebrow. He was in a bad mood, and he was trying to let off some of his steam by annoying me, but unfortunately for him, I didn’t feel jealous at all. Normally if I liked a guy, I would feel that green monster rise up inside me, but that didn’t happen, and if anything, I just found those brief sexual audibles to be hot. I wondered if that was because I didn’t like Jake, but put that aside. We talked on the phone at least every other day, and I liked the person he was. He was direct and no-nonsense but had a playfulness about him that seemed to contradict his terse business nature, when in fact it just made him seem charming. There was a definite attraction there, and it had gotten to the point where when I masturbated, he usually starred in those fantasies. “He did,” I agreed in an unemotional way, just to show him that I was annoyed at him for trying to bait me. He wisely chose to change the subject. “Why would Maria call me and tell me they have Jake when they do not?” Stef mused. “To find out if Jake is working for us,” JP said concisely. I felt my mouth fall open in horror, and saw Stef do the same thing. Jake had been down in Mexico, meeting with people and asking questions, but the big question on the Ortega cartel’s mind must have been why. To answer that question, they’d need to know who Jake was working for, and we’d just all but handed them that vital piece of information on a silver platter. “We’ve been played,” I said, shaking my head. “That is intensely irritating,” Stef said, incredibly annoyed both with Maria and with himself. For someone like him, with his astute instincts, an error like this would be just that much more devastating. Clearly neither one of us was operating at our peak efficiency in this matter. We were now both in even worse moods. “She keeps tossing those properties in your face,” I said to Stef. “I wonder how important they really are to her?” I was using my classic technique, playing devil’s advocate, to try and get some of my game back. “You think they are a red herring?” he asked, using a financial term. “If they are using those properties as a way to distract our attention from something else, what could it be?” JP pondered. We all thought about that for a bit. “I do not think she is doing that,” Stef concluded, with some conviction. “If that were the case, they would not have been included in her original settlement request.” “If she did, they would have to be part of a long-term plan,” JP said thoughtfully. That would have made this scheme so Byzantine it was at the Elizabeth Danfield level, and I wasn’t willing to give the cartels that much credit for plotting. “In any event, as long as you have control of that real estate, we will be embroiled in whatever schemes the Ortega cartel is working on.” “I guess you could sell or donate the land,” I said, thinking out loud. “Selling them may work, but then we may be inadvertently helping out one side or another,” JP noted. “If our hypothesis is that they are trying to weaken us, not destroy us, that means that Joaquin and the Rubio clan would be the most likely entity hurt by such a move,” Stef noted. He had an affinity for the Rubio cartel, one that I didn’t share, at least not when it could lead to significant danger to our family. “If we sell them, we could also end up dumping this problem onto someone else who may be unsuspecting,” JP stated. “It would be much the same if the land were donated to a charity.” We said nothing, and he frowned. “I am unwilling to knowingly pawn our problems off on innocent victims.” My moral compass wasn’t tuned as righteously as his, evidently, because I was more focused on what would happen to our family in general, and my sons in particular. “Well until we’re rid of those properties, we’re in the middle of this thing, and I’m not willing to risk our family members in some expanded drug war,” I asserted strongly. “I would suspect that even if we sold or donated the land, we would be setting ourselves up for some sort of repercussions from Maria and the Ortegas,” Stef hypothesized, both to advance that point and to prevent an extensive argument between JP and me about right and wrong. “Then how do we solve that problem?” I demanded. “We?” Stef challenged. “It seems that I am the executor and successor trustee.” “And we agreed to approach this collectively,” I countered angrily. Before we could start arguing, the phone rang. JP pushed the answer button and said “hello”. “Hey,” we heard Jake say. “I’m sorry about that. I was in the middle of a meeting.” “A meeting with moaning,” Stef teased. “There are all kinds of different ways to get information,” Jake countered playfully. This whole conversation was testing my patience, and not because I was annoyed that Jake was fucking someone else. There was nothing lighthearted at all about the problem we faced. “We were approached by Maria Ortega Dalby, and she informed us that you had been kidnapped and were being held,” I said tersely. “She offered to help get you released if we would agree to cede those border properties to her.” “I’m quite safe from the Ortega cartel,” Jake said confidently. “I doubt that is the case,” JP asserted. “The fact that you are that confident concerns me greatly.” “I’m here and have a pretty good read on the situation,” Jake countered, sounding very cocky. “Perhaps you are not seeing things as clearly because you are still euphoric after your ‘meeting’,” Stef said. I gave him a nasty look and briefly noted that this was the same kind of playfulness he usually gave Will such a bad time about. “We are concerned that Maria called Stef just to find out if you were working for us,” I said. “That means that even if you weren’t in danger before, you may be now.” Jake was silent for a second. “I can see your point.” I was pretty convinced that Jake needed to get out of Mexico now, and a glance at JP, where our eyes met, told me he was thinking the same thing. “We have a meeting in Virginia this weekend,” I said. “I would like you to be there if possible.” With that statement, I’d almost made it a command, since Jake was working for me. I was hoping I’d phrased it so I didn’t sound too autocratic. “I’ll fly out tomorrow,” he said. His response made me think that I’d gotten my tone about right. “We’ll be heading to New York. Meet us there,” I told him. “I’ll call you when I’m back in the states,” he said, and then we ended our call. I gave Stef a dirty look, and then went back to my room to contemplate the situation. September 9, 2003 Tribeca, NY JJ I was so fucking horny, I could barely stand it. I was sitting in the great room, waiting for Carullo to get home, hoping I could convince him to fuck me. That shouldn’t be too big of a problem, since he’s fucked me damn near non-stop since we’d hooked up last weekend. I smiled when I thought about how he ignited my body. With Alex, he’d been very loving and enthusiastic, but he was nowhere near as virile, masculine, and dominant as Carullo was. I looked down at my arms and saw that just thinking about it was giving me goosebumps, and that made me giggle. He was a pretty predictable guy, so it was no surprise that he strolled through the door at 5:30, his normal time. I smiled, noting how I had broken him of his nasty habit of all but bursting into a room. “Hey there!” I said pleasantly. “Well hey,” he said, smiling at me. “You sitting by the door, waiting for me?” He asked that last question a little nervously. “I am,” I said confidently, getting a raised eyebrow from him. “I have plans for us tonight.” “What if I’m busy?” he teased. “Are you?” “No,” he said, and leaned down to give me a kiss. Only that just unleashed the demon inside me, and in no time at all, we were in his room and he fucked us both to an amazing orgasm. “So that was the first part of my plan,” I said, even as I lay sprawled across him. He gently stroked my back. “Looks like you’re in charge.” “Duh,” I joked, getting a chuckle from him. “Now get dressed.” “What am I getting dressed for?” “We’re going out to dinner,” I said, even as I slid off him. “Where are we going to dinner?” he asked, which was a good question, since that would impact how he dressed. “That Italian place you took me to when you first told me you were moving in,” I said. That brought out his full smile. “You liked that place?” “I told you I did,” I countered. “I’m getting that fish thing they serve the upper-west side stiffs.” He laughed. “I’ll call and make sure we have a table.” I nodded, and then I left him alone to get ready. It was no surprise to find him waiting for me when I walked into the great room; I always took longer to get ready. All that time skating, and now being involved in the fashion world, had drilled into my psyche the need to always look my best. I studied Carullo and smiled. He was wearing casual clothes, but stuff I’d bought him, things that accentuated his muscular body but minimized his bulk, at least a bit. “You look great!” “If I do, it’s all you,” he said modestly, even though it was probably true. I gave myself credit for all but transforming his wardrobe, and thus his whole external image. We walked out of the condo and I humored him by walking down the stairs instead of taking the elevator as I normally did. He tended to incorporate exercise into all of his activities, whereas I separated mine into distinct categories, where when I exercised I went to the gym, but otherwise I made things as easy as possible. The Maybach limo was waiting for us, just as I’d instructed. “We could have taken a cab,” he said with a frown. “I’m in charge, so we ride in style,” I said. He shook his head but got in and situated himself in the soft leather seats. “Nice, right?” “Yeah, it’s nice,” he agreed with fake grumpiness. I told the driver where we were going and then sat back, neither one of us saying anything, both of us just enjoying the scenery of this massive metropolis. Of course they were ready for us, since Carullo had called ahead, and Dottie Cancilla, the lady who ran the place, was waiting to greet us. She was dressed in a floral skirt with a matching jacket, an outfit that was appropriately flashy and tacky for this place. “It is so nice to see you again, Dottie,” I said, thankfully remembering her name. “It’s been so long since you’ve been here, I thought you didn’t like our food,” she said in a disapproving way, tossing out some guilt. “That’s not it at all,” I said diplomatically. “I’ve just been busy.” “And how are you, Johnny?” she asked, targeting Carullo. “Doing great,” he said. “Tell your mother I said hello when you eventually see her,” she said, implying that Carullo didn’t go home and visit his mother enough. She took us to the same table we’d sat at the first time I’d been here, the one in the middle of the restaurant. It was like being in a birdcage, where everyone could look at us. That didn’t bother me at all, but it seemed to bug Carullo. “So when’s Jacinta start?” he asked me. Jacinta was the lady I’d hired to be our live-in housekeeper and cook. “Conveniently enough, she starts tomorrow,” I said. “How’d you find her?” he asked. “Rosa knows her, she’s like a cousin of hers or something, so she referred her,” I said. I’d interviewed her on Monday, and she seemed like a nice enough lady. She wasn’t hideously ugly, she was clean, and seemed to understand what I wanted her to do. That she was in her early thirties was helpful, since she’d still have enough energy to keep up with us. “I think she’ll do fine.” “You won’t have to eat out so much after she starts,” he said, teasing me for my total inability to cook anything. “Probably be a good idea, that way I can regulate my diet. I don’t want to gain weight,” I said with dread, because in my mind, being fat was just about the worst thing that could happen to me. “You look great, you got nothing to worry about,” he said to me flirtatiously, getting a big grin from me to show how much I appreciated his attention. The waitress, the same brusque lady who’d taken care of us last time, interrupted our conversation. “So I guess you want the Cannelloni,” she said to Carullo, “And you want the fancy fish dish,” she said to me in her abrupt way. Only I’d been living in this city long enough to know that’s just how people were. “At least your memory is good,” I said with a slight grin, giving her shit. She smiled slightly and flounced off to work on our food, while I resumed my conversation with Carullo. “We’re going to have a full house again tomorrow,” I told him. “Oh yeah?” I nodded. “Grand, Stef, my father, Will, and Darius are all flying in.” “For 9-11,” he said, and got really sad. I reached out and took his hand to try and make him feel better, but there was really no way to do that. It was a pain that would be with us both for the rest of our lives. “There’s some bell they have to go see in New Jersey,” I said. We both rolled our eyes together, a typical reaction when the state of New Jersey or its inhabitants came up. “Then they’ve got some big meeting in Virginia this weekend.” “You going?” he asked me, a little nervously. “Not sure,” I said, hedging to see why he was so uncomfortable. “We’ve got some big charity function on Friday night. I don’t think they’re planning to fly out to Virginia until Saturday morning.” “Gonna be crowded,” he said. “I was thinking that maybe, if you’re OK with it, that you could share my room and let one of them have your room,” I said, putting myself out there for potential rejection in a way that I hated, even though it usually worked out alright for me. Only this time, it didn’t. “That’s fine with me, but I’ll be gone anyway,” he said. That was pretty shocking, since Carullo was damn near always around on weekends. Maybe this was some work-related deal. “You have plans?” I asked, prying, but I was too curious not to ask him. “I’m going away for the weekend,” he said calmly, like it was no big deal, like he did that all the time. “I took some time off. I leave tomorrow.” “Oh,” I said, only because I was reeling from this new revelation, and I didn’t know how to ask him about it without seeming like a controlling bitch. Instead, I channeled all of my training from ice skating, and plastered the smile I’d mastered for the ‘kiss and cry’ sessions. “Going anywhere fun?” “Going to go camping in Vermont,” he said in a clipped way. “Probably going to do a lot of fishing and hiking.” “I’m not very good at either one of those things,” I said in a joking way, even though it was true. I was also trying to give myself a good out to explain why he hadn’t invited me. “Yeah, I figured that wouldn’t be your thing,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve had this deal set up for a while. It’s really hard to be here in the city on 9-11.” “I get that,” I agreed, “but for me, being here, confronting it has been good for me.” “I figure I do that every fucking day of my life, so I can take a break on 9-11,” he said, and not all that nicely. I ignored that, because I’d dealt with all kinds of emotional shit regarding that day, and I figured he would too. The waitress brought our food, and then left us alone to eat. I didn’t say anything; I just focused on eating, even though I was just dying to grill him about this weekend away. Dottie Cancilla came up to check on us. “How are your dinners?” “Fantastic,” I said. “This is just as good as I remembered.” Carullo muttered that his food was good too, even though he barely stopped eating long enough to talk to her. “That’s good to hear,” she said, and left us alone. I decided that if I had to be nice to brassy Italian women for him, he could tell me about his weekend. “I’m sure you’ll have a good time,” I said. “You going with a big group?” He frowned at me, and looked like he was about to really rip into me, but instead he sighed and stopped eating. “I’m going with Luka.” “That dude we met near Central Park?” I asked, even as my emotions were reeling. “Yeah,” he said. “Are you guys together?” I asked. “We’re not together, we’re just going away for the weekend,” he said, like this was no big deal at all. “I don’t think I’m being unreasonable by asking if you’re fucking this guy,” I said, just barely managing to keep my voice calm and unemotional. “Look, I told you I couldn’t be in an exclusive relationship when this started,” he snapped. I had limited patience with people as it was, and I thought I’d been remarkably tolerant up to this point, but he’d finally exhausted all of my reserves. “This?” I asked acidly. “This?” That last word was uttered a little too loudly, so I calmed myself down enough to keep my volume lower. The last thing I needed or wanted to do was to make a scene. “Fuck,” he said, and seemed really distraught. “I knew this was a bad idea.” “This,” I said to him, almost with a sneer. “Well, ‘this’ is leaving.” I stood up, tossed my napkin on my chair, and strode out of the restaurant and tracked down the car. Fuck him. He could pay the bill and deal with Dottie Cancilla. He could haul his own ass back to the condo. September 10, 2003 In the air over Nevada Will Stef, Grand, Dad, Darius and I were sitting around the conference table in Stef’s flying palace, with all of us doing our own thing. I was furiously working on my homework, grumbling internally about what a pain in the ass this trip was, and how much harder this was making my academic life. I’d picked up the extra class I needed to graduate in December, and that had done nothing but add additional work onto my plate. Grand was reading a journal article, Stef was reading People magazine, Darius was dicking around with his laptop, and my father was facing away from us, even as he talked in hushed tones on the phone. Our relative time to ourselves was shattered when my father hung up the phone and turned around to face the rest of us. “Jake is going to meet us in New York,” he announced. “That is good,” Grand said in a rather disinterested way as he looked up from his article. “We’re not going to have room for everyone,” I said, thinking about space in the condo. “There are only two extra bedrooms.” The condo had four bedrooms, one of which was occupied by JJ and the other one that was being used by Carullo. JJ had hired a housekeeper/cook, so now even that space was taken. “I talked to JJ and John Carullo will be gone for the weekend,” Stef said. “That brings us up to three extra bedrooms.” “So that means there’s one bedroom for you, me, and Jake to share?” Darius asked me. “I’ll share with Jake, and you can take the couch,” I teased, winking at my father, who rolled his eyes at me. “I’m sure we can work that out when we get there,” Dad said. I studied him carefully, and then smiled, since that meant he was probably going to try and get Jake to share with him. The dirty look he gave me convinced me that I was right, but that bugging him about it in front of everyone would really piss him off. “If we could have left earlier, it would have been a lot easier to handle these details,” Stef said in his bitchy way. That was clearly directed at me, since I was the last one who was able to leave. “Well since I had to go to New York last weekend, and since all of this traveling around has caused me to miss a bunch of classes as it is, there was no fucking way I could miss today,” I said to him rudely. “I did not mean to imply that you should have absented yourself from school today,” Stef said, beating a hasty retreat in the face of my anger, but more probably because he knew that Grand would be firmly on my side. “No?” I challenged. “Darius and I went to New York to deal with JJ when the rest of you couldn’t tear yourselves away, or grow a big enough spine, to deal with him yourself. So now I’m doing my best to make up for lost time.” Stef was furious now, but I didn’t give a shit. He’d always thrown this stuff with JJ at me when Darius wasn’t around, so he could explain things to Darius himself. “We appreciated that you both went to New York to deal with JJ last weekend,” Grand said, trying to smooth things over. “That’s why when I got back, I got a ration of crap about how we’d screwed things up and made JJ mad when we shouldn’t have,” I said, aiming that at Stef. “I do not think that statement accurately reflects what happened,” Stef said. He was so mad now his teeth were clenched. “We had to piss JJ off so we’d have something to apologize for,” Darius said in his clipped, matter of fact way. I stared at him, totally confused, even as my eyes blinked in surprise. I glanced at everyone else at the table, and they looked as confused as I was. “What are you talking about?” I demanded. He gave me that annoying condescending look he used when he was treating me like his little brother. “JJ totally fucked up, he’s been a little bitch, and he knows it.” “Then why did we have to go to New York last weekend?” I asked. “Because that’s what made him realize what a douche he’s been,” Darius said. “I do not understand how that relates to you having to apologize to him,” Stef said. Darius sighed, like we were all idiots for not getting his psychological conclusions. “JJ knows he’s going to have to grovel, and he hates that. It’s probably one of the most unpleasant things he has to do, since he likes to think he’s never wrong.” “That’s true,” I agreed, since JJ was like that. “So this way, when he tells us he’s sorry, we can apologize for rocking his world, and that will make the whole thing easier on him,” Darius said. “Won’t he just forget the whole thing, then, and turn around and be a douche all over again?” I asked. “I think he’ll be a douche all over again, because he is one,” Darius said, making me chuckle. “But he’ll remember, and probably learn from this time.” “You are giving him a way to save face,” Grand said. “I had never thought of it that way.” “Neither had I,” Stef agreed. “That is exceptionally astute.” “When your brothers are assholes, its good training,” Darius said. “Whatever,” I said in a petulant way, and then put my headphones on to drown out the rest of them and their babbling. Still, I could see his point. This would give us a bone to throw to JJ, and would probably help us heal our relationship with him pretty quickly. If it had only been one-sided, if we hadn’t pissed him off, he’d have been resentful that he’d been an ass and we’d called him on it, and he’d have nursed that for months. We’d have had to put up with his douchey behavior for that much longer until he worked it out of his system. Hopefully, this way we’d avoid all that. I thought about that weekend, and about all that had happened, and that really freaked me out. I hadn’t talked to Zach since our call on Sunday; something which I’d avoided thinking about because it shook me to my core. The only good thing to come out of that entire trip had been sleeping with Patrick Christian. Just the thought of him, and how smooth and sexy his voice was, made me smile. I took off my headphones and walked up to the “flying room” to get some privacy, then used the phone there to call Patrick. He wouldn’t recognize the number, so it didn’t surprise me that he let it go to voicemail. “Hey Patrick, it’s Will Schluter,” I said, trying to sound confident. That was soon replaced by my cheerful enthusiasm when I got to the guts of my message. “Thanks again for an amazing time last weekend. It was the bomb! I don’t know what your plans are for the next few days, but I’m going to get into New York later tonight and I’ll be there until Saturday morning. It would be great to see you again. Call me.” I left him my number, and then went back to the table. “Important call?” Dad asked. “I’m just trying to line up an alternate date in case you manage to finally seduce Jake,” I said. He frowned, since he’d opened himself up to my prying by probing into my life. “I did not know that was your plan,” Stef said to him. “That’s not my plan,” Dad asserted strongly, so strongly that Darius, Stef and I exchanged knowing looks, even as we snickered. “Dude, that’s my plan,” I said, cracking Darius up when he saw how Dad reacted to my words. “So’d you call Patrick Christian?” Darius asked, getting ready to give me shit about that. “Did you call Bellona?” I asked. “No,” Darius said, now in full retreat. “Weren’t you going to ask Darius about that?” I prompted Stef. Now it was Darius’ turn to give me a hateful look, even as he got put on the virtual witness stand by Stef, who grilled him about his entire encounter with Bellona.
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